March 21, 2022, by Amanda Miller

Race and employment during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond

By Dr Luis Torres and Professor Tracey Warren

21 March is the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Why 21 March? It marks the day in 1960 when the police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people who were at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid pass laws. Five years later in 1965 the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was adopted by the UN General Assembly.

Despite some important advances, racial discrimination continues as a source of marginalisation, inequality, and repression among people everywhere in the world.

21 March 2022 is also almost two years to the day when, on the 23 March 2020, the UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the first national lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic that was spreading across the globe. On that Monday evening, people in the UK were ordered to stay at home: ‘From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home’. We heard that we are ‘all in this together’, in the same boat against a deadly virus. It was quickly apparent that the pandemic would have vastly unequal effects on different groups in society. Rather than eliminate racial inequalities as the nation came together, the pandemic was to deepen them, putting the lives and livelihoods of black and minority ethnic peoples at risk.

We carried out research specifically into employment inequalities before and during Covid-19 to identify who was being hit hardest in their working lives and how best to support them. Now, you may be thinking “what for?” as we already know that times of economic uncertainty have different impacts on different groups of people.

However, different drivers of economic uncertainty bring different threats to the inequalities already being addressed by government and business policies. While economic crisis caused by financial crashes frequently focus on socio-economic inequalities such as income gap, and poverty, economic crisis – caused by health emergencies like Covid-19 – bring risks for health inequalities including the unequal distribution of infections and deaths among black and ethnic minorities.

By the time the pandemic hit we were already not ‘in it together’ but the pandemic was to further deepen rifts in working lives. Racial and ethnic minorities were already in a much more fragile condition. For example, while the UK unemployment rate rose to just over 5% in 2020, the rate for ethnic minorities together went up almost double. Some groups really stood out in suffering the highest job losses: Pakistani women (unemployment rate rose to 18%), men from mixed ethnic groups (up to 15%), and black people (up to 14%).

Some things did remain unchanged before and after the pandemic hit. For instance, workers from ethnic minorities found it harder to find full-time work and were more likely to work in temporary jobs compared to their white counterparts. This is not good news, but it is not new news.

How is all of this information valuable for tackling racial discrimination? Careful analysis of quality data is crucial. Unfortunately, most indicators used to inform policies are aggregated to show the overall picture. Knowing the overall picture is very useful for benchmarking purposes and for the development of country-wide policies. However, few to none of these metrics are valuable without disaggregation of data by race or ethnicity. How do we implement the national commitment of “leaving no one behind” when we cannot see who is still behind? A mandate for disaggregated data is included within the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but only limited attention has been focused on meaningful racial disaggregation and its intersection with gender and class, for example.

Today, 57 years have passed since the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was adopted. Forty-three years since the UN General Assembly established 21 March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Do our results show any progress? Unfortunately, black and minority ethnic groups are consistently more likely to live in poverty, to be in low-paid precarious work and to die of Covid-19. 

Government and employers must commit to gather regularly and share widely quality data on employment, disaggregated by race and ethnicity. We must track racial inequalities as we enter the post-pandemic world of work if we want to identify and battle the disproportionate and ongoing impact of the pandemic on black and minority ethnic workers and their families and communities.

Read our research: Carrying the work burden of Covid-19: Working class women in the UK

Dr Luis Torres and Professor Tracey Warren, Nottingham University Business School


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