Blog: The inequality of the pandemic

Christina McAnea speaking at the rostrum at UNISON higher education conference
By Christina McAnea, UNISON assistant general secretary

The evidence of COVID-19’s devastating impact on Black workershould shock us all. We don’t yet have the whole picture. Undoubtedly, the reasons are complex.  

But too many of the theories flying around imply Black communities are in some way responsible for the devastating toll on them. Lifestyle, family structure, eating habits, language barriers. The list goes on.

This victimblaming absolves policy makers and employers of responsibility at exactly the time when we need urgent action to address the increased riskWe don’t want knee-jerk reactions.  

The answer is not to pull all Black staff away from COVID hotspots. We want exactly what we have been demanding since day one. Proper risk assessments for ALL staff, including a sensitive assessment of underlying health conditions that put staff at increased risk.  

We want every worker to have the correct protective equipment for their role, taking account of their individual needs and circumstances. We want equality impact assessment built into risk management. Individual risk assessments –yes – but these must be alongside checks for patterns of inequality across teams and departments

The focus is rightly on Black staff at the moment. But members of all equality groups are facing COVID challenges. And Black staff are not simply defined by race. They are also women, carers, LGBT+, young, older, disabled, all of which have an impact upon how they are surviving the pandemic.

Risk increases where workers are unable to speak out about safety concernsWe  know that workers facing racism and other forms of systemic discrimination are less likely to report concernsThey have less confidence they will be taken seriouslyor that speaking out will improve anything. Indeed, many fear that raising concerns will simply make things worse. 

Risk also increases when vulnerable workers feel compelled to work when they are unwell or in unsafe conditions simply to feed their families or pay their rent.  And we know high numbers of Black, women and younger staff are in insecure work.

UNISON is putting equality at the heart of the agenda in our negotiations with employers and meetings with government. We have threaded it through all our advice to reps.  

We have submitted our members’ evidence on the unequal impact of COVID-19 to the Women and Equalities Select Committee and in our lobbying on the current Domestic Abuse and Immigration Bills.

This crisis sets in stark relief so many of our concerns. Job segregation, low pay, deep-seated and systemic discrimination. We demand urgent action now. 

But we also want to see a future that is different. We want to come out of this crisis with a better, more equal and more inclusive society. One with more respect for workers and proper investment in the public services that keep us all safe.