Why don’t we
just… stamp out
workplace racism?

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Before the introduction of the Race Relations Amendment Act in 1968, it was common for employers to operate formal colour bar policies limiting the employment of minority workers to 5 per cent of the workforce.

Although some would argue that much has changed since then, the Race at Work survey is the latest reminder that racism and racial inequality remain resilient features of working life.

Last year Business in the Community asked us to analyse 5,000 responses to survey questions relating to experiencing and/or witnessing racism at work, as well as what employers did to promote equality and diversity.

We found that minority workers were commonly subjected to explicit and overt forms of racism, which many people, including the former prime minister David Cameron, suggest has dissipated.

They faced anti-semitism and Islamophobia, which are often triggered by wider international political events and all too often echo the rhetoric of politicians and the things we hear in the media.

Racism was also commonly experienced as a form of cultural domination. This was most evident in terms of notions of “language proficiency” and the gendered ways that Muslim women experience Islamophobia.

We found that racism can have a profound effect on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the people who experience it, resulting in anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Some survey participants noted the long-lasting and traumatic impact that racism can have.

We also found that that racism had a negative impact on the careers of minority employees in terms of recruitment, access to training opportunities and promotion.

We should be greatly disturbed by the fact that too many managers and employers fail to take reports of racism seriously and fail to respond to reports of racism in a timely and sensitive manner. Some even transfer the person reporting racism rather than addressing it. On top of this, we found that the promotion of equality, diversity and fairness could be either non-existent or merely a box-ticking exercise.

On 31 January we attended a meeting at the House of Commons hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community to discuss these findings and the recommendations that we set out in the Equality, Diversity and Racism in the Workplace report, published in November 2016.

During the discussion there was a strong feeling that existing legislation does not go far enough. It was argued that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) does not have the political independence, or the funding and authority required to hold employers to account. Many people felt existing legislation and structures are not fit for purpose.

It was suggested that the government should introduce mandatory and publicly transparent audits to capture both the level of diversity and inequality in the workplace. It was also suggested that the government use contract procurement as a way of ensuring that contractors take equality and diversity duties seriously.

Given that it is almost 50 years since the Race Relations Act was amended to outlaw racial discrimination in employment, we found ourselves making arguments and asking questions that have been asked many, many times before.

Does the current government have the political will to radically revise the existing legislative framework to ensure that employers comply with existing legislation and equality duties, applying heavy sanctions against employers in cases of non-compliance? Will the government give the EHRC the funding and authority required to address racism and racial inequality in the workplace?

While we wait for an answer to these questions, one thing is for certain: the time for tough talk and rhetorical posturing is over. We’ve heard it all before!

Fifty years of evidence shows that most employers cannot be left to their own devices when it comes to challenging racism and racial inequality in the workplace. How many more reports and official reviews does the government need before it takes serious action?

Stephen Ashe is a research associate in the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at Manchester University

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