With the number of Covid-19 deaths in Britain now the highest in Europe, and Hackney being one of the worst affected areas, it has been noted by people as diverse as TV presenters to members of the public that Covid-19 is not the great equaliser it is often purported to be.
The disproportionality in the Covid-19 death rates of people of colour, many of whom were in jobs with a higher susceptibility to disease exposure, has underscored the inescapable extent of inequality in modern Britain.
The Runnymede Trust is the UK’s seminal think tank in researching and advising the government on racial equality matters.
In April, it released The Colour of Money report, exploring the profound socio-economic disparities that characterise the lives of many people of colour.
The report highlights that people of colour have less economic capital due to disadvantages in the job market and possess fewer savings and assets.
People of colour are less likely to be in receipt of financial support from the state due to immigration status, and are also concentrated in large cities with higher living costs and more overcrowded housing.
The report underlines that people of colour experience significant disadvantages in the job market, from name discrimination on job applications to lower rates of job promotion once embedded in formal employment, which accumulates to significantly impact upon their economic capital.
The bias against job applicants with names which denote heritages outside of Europe has been widely deliberated over for years.
All the way back in 2016 the BBC ran an article confrontationally headlined ‘Should you change your name to get a job?’. The pragmatic retort of those featured was ‘Yes’, as they had to so they could significantly increase their chances of employment.
The article explored the experiences of people of colour who found the success rates of their job applications exponentially increased once they anglicised their names.
Although that was four years ago, The Colour of Money report suggests the situation has not since improved.
The Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College, Oxford, conducted a research experiment where identical CVs and cover letters were submitted to various employers with names which signified BAME backgrounds and white backgrounds respectively.
The experiment found that people of colour had to send out 60 per cent more job applications than their white counterparts to receive a response due to deeply entrenched unconscious biases about their capabilities and skill sets.
This research into name discrimination has legitimised the anecdotal experiences of many people of colour; however, until meaningful policy action is implemented to redress this discrimination, it is unlikely to improve.
The imbalances do not subside once people of colour are engaged in formal employment.
The Reframing Racism report by The Runnymede Trust in 2017 has indicated that people of colour are likely to be over-skilled for the positions they work in and to earn less money than their white counterparts.
The findings of the report do not harmonise well with the meritocracy paradigm which holds that the harder you work, the better you do. The findings demonstrate it does not necessarily follow that closing gaps in educational attainment between students of colour and other racial groups will level employability rates.
Often, initiatives to improve social mobility pivot around supporting young people to obtain places at elite universities, but research suggests that without addressing discrimination in the job market, degrees by themselves may not be enough to ensure equality of opportunity for everyone.
The Colour of Money reports that black British graduates from Russell Group universities are more likely than others with comparable qualifications to be unemployed two and a half years after graduating.
The dictum ‘Education is the great equaliser’ does not appear to factor in the complexity and nuances of systemic racism on upward mobility.
During the pandemic, much media attention has been given to reports that a number of NHS staff have been threatened with disciplinary action, or even dismissal, for highlighting deficits in provision of PPE and testing.
There are instances of BAME staff speaking up against this, such as Meenal Viz and Nishant Joshi, a pair of married doctors who have issued legal proceedings against the NHS for failure to provide equipment to safeguard staff.
Nevertheless, the outcomes for BAME staff who attempt to challenge the status quo within their places of work can be dire.
The NHS’s Freedom to Speak Up report, which explored whistleblowing in the health service, found people of colour who raised concerns were more likely to fear reprisals.
There was also an overall perception that people of colour would face more adverse consequences than others for speaking out, such as being referred to professional regulatory bodies.
The Colour of Money report corroborates these findings as it states people of colour are more likely to face disciplinary action in their places of work and to be disproportionately assigned to undertaking menial tasks, which could also contribute to the higher Covid death rates for people of colour.
The Nursing Times reported that some NHS staff believe they are being overly assigned to work on wards with Covid patients.
Women of colour are also disproportionally represented on the frontline of caring professions, undertaking jobs requiring significant risk and hefty emotional outputs.
Many of these roles depend on personal qualities of intuition, emotional resilience and the ability to relate to others. These skills are often gendered as being the preserve of women and subsequently undervalued.
The prevailing social construct that women are innately more compassionate than men is harmful, as it does not acknowledge the pressures and consequences on women’s bodies and minds of intensively caring for others.
The framing of caring work as an inherent aspect of femininity also means our economy does not remunerate workers for utilising these skills, resulting in those working in these job roles being severely underpaid.
The Colour of Money highlights that people of colour are disproportionately concentrated in gig economy jobs, with up to 25 per cent of workers compared to 14 per cent of the general population. It has been hypothesised this is a contributing factor for the higher death rate as those on zero-hour contracts have been unable to practice social distancing because they have to work to pay for food and accommodation.
The gig economy encompasses jobs like Deliveroo and Uber drivers. It is characterised by precarity, which engenders feelings of instability and disposability, amongst employers and workers alike.
The report suggests, in theory, that unionisation within gig economy workplaces might assist in amplifying workers’ voices and experiences.
Historically, unions were most successful in gathering and organising in manufacturing industries when employees worked alongside each other in the same location to produce a shared product.
The type of collective action unions require to be successful is very difficult in the gig economy, where the nature of the work is typically more individualised, employment rights are limited and employees work disparate hours.
Once an individual is engaged in unstable, low-paid work, improving their life chances can be a herculean task.
For those in the gig economy, to advance outcomes by pursuing further education and professional qualifications relies on possessing ample time to study; however, spare time is increasingly limited when you are engaged in precarious work.
The Colour of Money ultimately recommends numerous systemic changes to the economic system to address the widespread asymmetries.
The report suggests introducing the ‘Rooney Rule’, an initiative designed in the footballing world, to increase the chances of people of colour being selected for job interviews.
The initiative would not mean automatic selection for jobs but would increase equality of opportunity.
There is also the suggestion of a review into the impact hostile economic policies have on migrants and their children, many of whom are people of colour.
The report also proposes a higher degree of monitoring and assessment of the impact of economic policies on people of colour specifically.
The Colour of Money demonstrates, in a world where employment and educational opportunities appear to be receding, that it should not just be the health inequities of people of colour which are debated.