Fifty years on from the UK’s first piece of legislation outlawing racial discrimination in employment, Stephen Ashe & James Nazroo look at what’s changed and whether racism in the workplace needs to be looked at in a different light.

Impact of racism in the workplace

The Trade Union Congress’ (TUC) 2016-2017 Racism at Work survey is the latest piece of research to confirm that workplace racism has a considerable impact on people’s physical and mental health. This raises an important question: should workplace racism also be considered an issue of health and safety rather than just falling under the remit of equality and diversity?

Of the 5,191 people who took the TUC’s survey, over half of those from an Asian, Black or Mixed heritage background reported that workplace racism had a negative impact on their mental health. At the same time, more than a quarter participants from an Asian, Black or Mixed heritage background reported that workplace racism had a negative impact on their physical health, while a similar number said that workplace racism had led to them taking sick leave. What is more, over one in ten non-white respondents reported that they had experienced racist violence at work.

The multiple and cumulative effects of workplace racism are powerfully captured in the following statement provided by a TUC survey participants:

I’ve had three workplaces where I’ve had to bring grievances that were race related (racist in nature)…You can never absolutely prove it…It’s insidious. The ignoring you is as bad as the shouting at you…I ended up on anti-depressants and suicidal. It makes you forget who you are, your strengths, your abilities. I’m a skilled intelligent woman who’s worked for 35 years and I ended up barely able to send an email. It’s like the perpetrators don’t realise. Leaves you powerless. I’m having to leave my job and take a 10k wage reduction for a short-term post instead of my permanent one. It’s either that or my life. My children/family have insisted. They want me alive.

The findings from the TUC survey support our analysis of the 2015 Business in the Community (BITC) Race at Work survey, which also found that workplace racism had a considerable impact on people’s emotional and psychological wellbeing. Some 24,457 people took part in the BITC survey, with more than 5,000 participants providing personal statements. When analysing these statements we similarly found that workplace racism had also resulted in a considerable number of people experiencing anxiety, stress and depression. Like the TUC survey, a significant number of BITC survey participants also reported being subjected to intimidation and racist violence at work.

It is perhaps most worrying that many participants, across both surveys, reported that racism was a reoccurring part of their everyday working lives. This is particularly disturbing given that recent research by colleagues in the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity has shown that repeated exposure to racism has serious negative long-term effects on people’s mental health.

Existing legislative landscape

Fifty years ago Harold Wilson’s Labour government amended the 1965 Race Relations in order to outlaw racial discrimination in employment for the first time. Some 33 years later, the 2001 Race Equality Duty placed the first ever legal obligation on public authorities to positively promote equality rather than simply avoiding discrimination. And yet, racism and racial inequality are still staple features of the British economy.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 stipulate that ‘Employers must do whatever is ‘reasonably practicable’ to ensure ‘that workers and others are protected from anything that may cause harm, effectively controlling any risks to injury or health that could arise in the workplace’. As our colleague Tarani Chandola also recently argued, anti-discrimination statutes are ‘potentially’ implicated in cases related to work stress, notably the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Equality Act 2010.

Following on from the PM’s Race Disparity Audit, the recent announcement that £90 million will be made available to address racial inequality in youth unemployment is welcome. At the same time, it is profoundly disappointing that Margot James, Minister for Small Business, Consumers & Corporate Responsibility responded to the recent McGregor-Smith Review by stating that

We believe that in the first instance, the best method is a business-led, voluntary approach and not legislation as a way of bringing about lasting change… We therefore… will monitor progress and stand ready to act if sufficient progress is not delivered.

In light of the fact that it is fifty years since the Race Relations Amendment Act was introduced, forty years since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and 17 years since the introduction of the first public sector Race Equality Duty, the TUC and BITC surveys provide further compelling evidence that the existing legislative arrangements have not delivered ‘sufficient progress’.

The TUC and BITC surveys suggest that the time for joined up thinking and consequential action is now, particularly in terms of ensuring the implementation of existing legislation is effectively monitored and enforced, and that employers are held to account. The Health Safety Executive has already noted that employers have a ‘duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees‘. People have the right to go to work free from both the threat of racist violence and intimidation, as well as the impact racism has been proven to have on people’s physical and mental health. It is time to start thinking about workplace racism, not just as an equality and diversity issue, but also as a serious matter of health and safety.


If you would like to share your experiences of workplace racism and the impact this has had on your physical and mental health, click here to take 2018 Race at Work survey. It takes around 13 minutes to complete the survey. All answers treated anonymously.

Stephen Ashe leads the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity’s Racism at Work Project.

James Nazroo is Professor of Sociology and Director of Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at The University of Manchester, researching inequalities in relation to later life, ethnicity and race, and health.

Their report based on the 2016/2017 TUC Racism at Work Survey will be published later this month.