Black members pass motions on disability and cost of living crisis

The second day of the UNISON national Black members’ conference, hosted in Edinburgh, passed a number of key motions affecting Black workers

There are an estimated 185,000 Black members in UNISON, the majority of whom work in health and local government services, and the union has declared 2023 as the Year of Black Workers.

During the morning session, chaired by Kebba Manneh – the chair of the national Black members committee – conference passed motions on young Black members and mental health at work, and on Black members feeling undervalued and like they don’t belong.

A key motion was unanimously passed on Black workers and non-apparent impairments.

Introduced by Tansaim Hussain-Gul of the union’s national disabled members committee, the motion called on the national Black members’ committee to emphasise the rights of Black disabled workers with non-apparent and fluctuating impairments.

Ms Hussain-Gul said: “As we all know, employers judge you by the way you look. If you don’t have a walking stick, wheelchair or other aids, then you don’t look disabled. I am disabled, but I don’t look it. Only if you had x-ray vision could you see my body crumbling inside and the immense pain I’m in.

“Disability is not just physical. It is mental and invisible. Black people disproportionately experience impairments like lupus, diabetes and sickle cell.

“As you’ve all seen, long COVID has had a disproportionate impact on us. It is imperative that our stewards are aware that long COVID means the member is a disabled person, and that person is protected under the Equality Act 2010.

“It is so important to get policies agreed with employers so there is a consistent approach, and black workers aren’t treated less favourably.”

The motion also called on the national committee to circulate UNISON’s guide to supporting members with long COVID to regional Black members’ groups.

Supporting the motion, Bertha Kanyangu from the Northern region said: “Some employers refuse to accept a worker is disabled and entitled to reasonable adjustments unless their impairment is obvious.

“Black workers with disabilities and non-apparent impairments are at an even greater disadvantage.

“Sickle cell, lupus and scleroderma are not visible, so employers question members continually on medical appointments and sickness records.

“We need this to stop, and make employers accountable. It’s important that support is given to branches, to seek and negotiate disability equality policies with employers.”

The motion was unanimously passed. 

The afternoon conference session was chaired by Rakiya Suleiman, deputy chair of the national committee.

After a rousing opening speech from writer and education campaigner Augustin John, in which he urged conference delegates to situate institutional racism between structural racism, conference passed another key motion on the impact of the cost of living crisis on Black low-paid workers. 

Introducing the motion, Daisy Mbwanda from UNISON North Cumbria/Northumberland branch told delegates: “Black members are more likely to be in low-paid, insecure work where there are too few hours, zero hours, and short notice of shift patterns.

“Low pay isn’t about struggling to make ends meet, it means physical and mental stress and ill health, affecting family life and the daily battle to put food on the table. Life without security and difficult planning for the future.

“Whilst some progress has been made to close the ethnicity pay gap, many ethnic groups still experience lower pay than white British workers.”

The motion called for increased support for low-paid Black workers at a branch level, and working with branches to ensure there is specific material aimed at Black members to promote welfare services. 

Julia Mwaluke from the national members’ committee said: “Black and ethnic minority people are more than twice as likely to be in poverty than white people.

“Since 2009, we have not seen enough progress as we move deeper into today’s cost of living crisis. Black people find themselves at particular risk of depression, anxiety and mental health issues. It’s time to take action now.”