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The Battle for Equality for BAME Workers: Lions led by Donkeys

by | Jul 13, 2020

In the period since lockdown, along with sections of the health sector,trade unions, the care sector and sections of the Labour party, NGOs like Refugee Action have teamed up with refugee self-advocacy organizations, like Freed Voices, to make clear demands of the UK government that go well beyond previous calls to end detention, deportation and to prioritise sanctuary and include:

  • Ending NHS surcharges for NHS migrant workers and provide the same death benefits to families of ALL NHS workers. The UK government eventually agreed to both these demands. But one report notes: “…people will not know about the exemption and [refugees and migrants] may still not access [health] services”.
  • Responding to local action groups, and release all immigration detainees (some have been released, not all);
  • Allowing lone child refugees to join their families in the UK (the Dubs Amendment, reneged on by the UK government);
  • Providing a reasonable increase in the weekly payment to asylum seekers to meet the rising cost of living under COVID-19. On June 8, Priti Patel added just 26 pence to the weekly allowance.
  • Ensuring free health care for all, so all are shielded from infection. As reported: “The government has decided that the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 will not be charged”. However, other illnesses, and even pregnancy and delivery, are subject to charges for many migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

In April 2020, in the midst of lockdown, the Windrush report was finally published. It took the murder of George Floyd on camera to mobilise a worldwide campaign – Black Lives Matter – to demand respect for Black people and all non-white minorities. The Windrush recommendations are not yet acted on, but will become a priority after the COVID-19 crisis period.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming priority in April was to provide PPE to all medical and care staff, and those in frontline jobs.

Asylum seekers continue to struggle through a maze of asylum procedures, expected to live on just over a fiver a day. In early June 2020, after asylum seekers’ income was increased by 26 pence per week, BAME cleaners at the Ministry of Justice were offered a paltry 14 pence per hour pay rise. Their trade union representative said: “…these workers have been denied occupational sick pay and…forced to work without face masks and other PPE in this pandemic…not only callous but criminally negligent”.

Lockdown has shone a light on who the ‘essential workers’ are in the economy, and most cannot go into lockdown. Most are ‘outsourced’, or on ‘zero hours contracts’ or agency workers, all ineligible for ‘furlough’ pay. Many are among the lowest-paid in society. Whatever their considerable talents, many BAME people can only find jobs in low-pay sectors like cleaning, care work, food processing, menial hospital work or transport; all high-risk professions during the pandemic.

On 28 April 2020 Emanuel Gomes died at home of heart problems, along with suspected Corona virus. It was reported Emanuel, originally from Guinea, barely ate for five days before he died. United Voices of the World, his trade union, is fighting a landmark legal battle in court, to show that “…outsourcing BAME and other workers with protected characteristics onto inferior pay and terms and conditions of employment amounts to indirect racial discrimination under the Equality Act 2010”. The same union is also suing the Ministry of Justice where Emanuel worked as a cleaner. Emanuel could not live or support his family on sick pay, so went to work even when ill.

BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people in the UK have been dying of COVID-19 at more than four times the national average. Emanuel’s story tells us why.

During the first wave of COVID-19, there was finally action on housing the homeless throughout the UK. It is still conceivable that some parts of the government might take note of the advice of the medical journal, The Lancet, whose 23 May editorial pleaded: “When this pandemic has ended, we cannot allow a return to the status quo ante. We must ensure that essential workers can do their jobs safely, and that they have adequate health care and paid sick leave to safeguard their health beyond extraordinary pandemics. Essential workers are just that—essential—and by protecting their health, we protect the health and wellbeing of us all”.

 Researchers at Fairwork, conclude: “Our solutions have to be systemic, inclusive, and can no longer allow certain groups in society to fall through the cracks”. BAME lives matter more than counting the pennies. The shameful Hostile Environment policy was supposed to have ended, but one of its key provisions, the No Recourse to Public Funds has now been challenged in court.

The UK government was defeated in its appeal. Many Brits can be forgiven for concluding that we are still being Led by Donkeys