Business must not let race equality gap widen during COVID-19 crisis

Post author image. Deborah Sharp

Sandra Kerr, Race Equality Director at Business in the Community (BITC) shares her thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic and how the economic impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups in the workplace can be mitigated.

As we social distance to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, responsible employers will need to take strategic action to address the issues that the virus and its consequences will cause for people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

We know that existing racial inequalities are already contributing towards the profoundly disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people from BAME backgrounds with greater precariousness of employment, worse health outcomes and financial difficulties.

Employers need to get past the discomfort of talking about race so that plans are put in place to avoid devastating repetition that followed the last economic downturn in 2008.

Lessons from the 2008 recession 

Evidence shows that ethnic minority groups fared significantly worse during the 2008 recession than the white majority, with higher unemployment, lower earnings, lower self-employment rates and higher housing costs and decimated savings.

The Runnymede report Why do assets matter?, published just two years after 2008, reported that BAME groups were twice as likely as white groups to have no savings, with 60% of black and Asian people in the UK having no savings at all.

Low pay an important factor

Low pay will continue to be an important factor throughout the pandemic as the lowest income households are occupied by Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and black families.

We also know from the report by the Carnegie Trust UK, Race inequality in the workforce, that BAME employees are still more likely to be in some form of precarious work. For example, they are 47% more likely to have a zero-hour contract.

What can employers do?

There are issues that must be addressed now because of the inevitable challenging economic impact of COVID-19. But we want employers to know that there is support available. Here are ten actions that every responsible employer can take:

  1. Ensure that diverse voices are around the virtual key decision-making tables being established at this time. In light of this, employers should take a race equality impact assessment approach to key business decisions, to examine if there will be a disproportional impact on BAME employees.  This may occur because they are larger proportions of BAME employees in certain functions in the organisation.
  • Look for opportunities to disperse BAME employees to alternative roles within the organisation as necessary to safeguard employment. There may also be some career defining roles that employers need people to move into and this should include the examination of their pools of BAME talent to ensure fair access and opportunity for these roles.
  • Review and monitor the population of employees earmarked for furlough to the Job Retention Scheme and not just apply a first-in, first-out principle. Assess the skills needed within your organisation for continued operational effectiveness and consider redeployment of skilled people who can pivot into new roles across the organisation as appropriate. For example, if you have 10% BAME employees in your workforce, you would expect to have no more than 10% BAME employees on furlough.
  • Employers that are recruiting must set recruitment targets using local demographic data for baseline. Ensure that there is no bias in the process. Monitor each stage of the selection process through to appointment and hire. Last month BITC launched a factsheet for leaders that includes top tips on setting ethnicity targets.
  • Employers should pro-actively check in with employees now and ask about their health and wellbeing and that of their households, in the light of this pandemic.
  • Monitor and review access to any internal employee hardship funds. Encourage applications from employees with some of the disparities that may be linked to financial challenges because of disproportionate housing costs, and/or limited savings.
  • Ensure that there are clear signposts to additional government support where appropriate. Employers could take extra steps to ensure that employees are aware of government advice and support where there maybe language barriers, or English is a second language.
  • Sign the Race at Work Charter: about 250 employers have already signed BITC’s Race at Work Charter. Signing up means taking practical steps to ensure their workplaces are tackling barriers that ethnic minority people face in recruitment and progression and that their organisations are representative of British society today.

Take the short Race at Work Charter 2020 survey and share your story. There is a short survey open for employers to quickly asses themselves against the five charter principles. There is also an opportunity for employers to share any examples of good practice or action they are taking in the light of COVID-19. Share your story with us so that we can share it with the wider landscape of employers in the UK.