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Black people at the sharp end in austerity Britain

WILF SULLIVAN on how the cuts agenda is hitting ethnic minorities hardest

Several hundred black and Asian trade unionists are at Congress House this weekend for the 2014 TUC black workers' conference and three days of lively debate on a key range of topical issues.

Stephen Lawrence's father Neville Lawrence, Equality and Human Rights Commission chief executive Mark Hammond and Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants chief executive Habib Rahman are among the speakers at the conference, which began yesterday.

A key topic for debate at this year's event is the effect of the government's austerity policies on black communities and how they are affecting employment prospects.

The Department for Work and Pensions' (DWP) own figures show that unemployment for black and minority ethnic groups is 14 per cent compared with 7 per cent for the white population.

The situation for young people is at crisis point, with figures showing joblessness for black 16 to 24-year-olds running at 33 per cent compared with 17 per cent for white youngsters. But unemployment is not the only concern for delegates.

While David Cameron may believe recent improvements in the unemployment figures will bring peace of mind to the British people, black trade unionists are increasingly concerned about the trend towards casualised working patterns.

Increasingly the casualisation of jobs brought about by the growth of short-term and zero-hours contracts and increased agency working is having a disproportionate impact on black communities.

This has been demonstrated by a study carried out by the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity in Manchester, which showed that part-time employment between 2001 and 2011 dramatically increased among black workers.

As jobs have disappeared in the public sector, where black workers have traditionally found employment, workers are being confined to low-paid employment in the services sector.

The DWP admitted in a report earlier this year that low-income workers face significant barriers to better pay and progression in the workplace when they do find jobs and that the cultures of large employers prevent low-paid staff from progressing, wasting skills and potential.

It identified that these cultures tend to disproportionately affect employees from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Delegates will also be concerned about this government's obsession with creating barriers to stop working people seeking compensation for abuses in the workplace through the legal system.

Last year the TUC warned the government that the introduction of fees for applying to and having cases heard in employment tribunals would result in workers being priced out of justice.

Figures published last month by the Ministry of Justice showed that the introduction of fees has resulted in a 57 per cent fall in race discrimination cases.

In addition the removal of the equality questionnaire procedure that was available to help workers gather evidence of discrimination in the workplace has made it harder for applicants to gather evidence.

Other topics that will be discussed include the toxic debate on immigration being conducted by some politicians and parts of the media, suggesting that far too many people remain happy to play the dangerous game of race politics.

Blaming immigrants for government failures to provide jobs, social security and decent services is increasingly being seen as the way to get votes at the impending European elections.

Also up for discussion will be the Immigration Bill which is currently going through Parliament.

Many delegates believe the Bill is no more than a snooper's charter that will have an impact not only on new migrants - Britain's long-established black communities will be affected by the greater levels of racial profiling many fear will result.

The conference will be particularly keen to hear the thoughts of Neville Lawrence in the light of the recent report by Mark Ellison QC which revealed that an undercover police operation had been spying on the Lawrences' campaign to get justice after Stephen's murder.

The continued demonisation of black communities as criminals or religious extremists apart from the rest of society has helped to heighten tensions, encourage racism and has done nothing to tackle the institutional racism highlighted by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report published back in February 1999.

The central theme for the conference is confronting racial discrimination and an important issue for delegates is the need to build stronger unions.

Black activists believe that it's very important that in these tough times unions don't forget about equality.

Challenging racism is not just a matter of providing individual representation when somebody suffers racism in the workplace.

It is also about organising a collective approach to dealing with structural discrimination and ensuring that race equality becomes central to the collective bargaining process.

Now more than ever it is essential that black workers not only join unions but actively participate in them too so we can confront racism in all its guises.


Wilf Sullivan is TUC race equality policy officer


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