Race Equality Act – How far have we come since 1968?

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2018 National Black Members' Conference
12 September 2017
Carried as Amended

On 8 December 1965 the first Race Relations Act came into force in Britain. Prior to this, it was legal to discriminate against people because of the colour of their skin, and this act was the first in many equality legislation to promote non-discrimination and equality, the Act was amended in 1968. This year is a special one because it marks the 50th anniversary of the amended Race Relations Act. Yet many Black workers are asking not how far we have come since then, but how many gains have been reversed in recent years.

We have seen many blatant examples of racism in our society and in our workplaces. In 1960’s Britain, Black people were subject to overt and cruel racism, typically captured with the ‘No Blacks, No Dogs No Irish’ signs erected by white British landlords. At this time Black people had no legal protection from race discrimination, being denied jobs, access to services, and housing were still legal until the 1968 and 1976 Acts. The 1968 Act introduced the idea of indirect discrimination which has informed much of subsequent equality legislation today.

Today Black people are being scapegoated for austerity, they encounter race discrimination in the labour market and beyond, they face disproportionate cuts and austerity and they suffer more from casualisation, zero-hours contracts, low pay and poverty.

Throughout the period surrounding Brexit and the 2017 General election we witnessed an increasingly toxic debate around migration and race, creating an even more hostile environment for migrant and Black workers. As Black people we have contributed positively to British society and supported the public sector.

The most recent equality legislation is the Equality Act 2010 which came into effect from 1 October 2010. This Act, for the first time, gave the UK a single Act of Parliament, requiring equal treatment in access to employment as well as private and public services, regardless of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, maternity or pregnancy, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation, now known as protected characteristics.

As a union we need to defend Black workers rights and human rights and resist further erosion of our legal rights, to ensure that this and successive governments make progress towards race equality and renew a commitment to race equality at work and the wider society. Black people are experiencing increasing levels of race discrimination, disadvantage and under-representation in the labour market, service provision and wider society.

Current legislation means Black LGBT migrant workers or people seeking asylum in the UK are entitled to an assessment of potential breach of their human rights, including the risk of them being deported. This assessment engages Article 3, Prohibition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and Article 8, Right to respect for private and family life. Yet the threshold of evidence connected with the risks of being Black and LGBT in some countries outside the UK is so high that these assessments are almost without worth.

At a time when we need more legislation and rights, there is major concern regarding the absence of focus on race equality particularly given the growing inequality for UNISON Black Members, their families and communities. Since 2010, we have seen an erosion of equality legislation, seen as nothing but ‘red tape’ by the previous coalition and the current Tory government.

The creation of the 1965 Act and subsequent amendments was intended to outlaw discrimination and give equal rights to Black people, yet we have seen very little improvement over the past 50 years. Young Black males continue to have the highest rate of unemployment, young people continue to be failed by the education system, there remains a massive health inequality between Black and White people, higher numbers of Black people will be housed in poor/substandard accommodation, and the criminal justice system is over-represented by Black people who receive consistently higher sentences. Fifty years on from the Act we should ask whether we need more legislation, more effective policy implementation or more civil society action to finally achieve racial equality in Britain in the 21st century.

Work by UNISON’s Strategic Organising Unit highlights the almost impossible task of gaining permanent residence as there is an income threshold of £35,000. This is not a combined household or family income but has to be earned by one individual. Conference is fully aware that most migrant workers are in low paid work that is often zero hours or temporary. This further undermines and exacerbates difficulties for Black LGBT people who are already experiencing high levels of stress.

Conference therefore calls upon the National Black Members’ Committee to:

1)Engage with the other self-organised groups and the National service groups to highlight the issues and develop materials for branches and regions on how to bargain for equality;

2)Liaise with National Labour Link Committee to highlight these issues with all Labour Party politicians and office holders;

3)Utilise reports that highlight race inequalities in the workplace to hold public bodies to account;

4)Call on the Strategic Organising Unit to develop its work with LGBT migrants.