The hidden workforce
On Sunday Cameron announced there was ‘no place for racism in Britain’. For once, Mr Cameron is right. What is he going to do about it? Well, there is going to be a football summit. There is no denying that disgusting displays of racist abuse and aggression shown by certain football players cannot go unsanctioned but if Cameron really wants to ‘kick racism out’ he need to look further than just the football pitch.
The perception that the post-Lawrence environment is somehow post-racial, and that there has been a sea change in levels of racist hostility and institutionally racist practices, seems to make sense to a lot of people. The reality is that since the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, 90 people in the UK have lost their lives because they have been racially attacked. Racist attacks either verbal or physical take place every day in our communities and in our workplaces. Entrenched patterns of racist hostility and interconnected racist violence continue to be a significant dimension of life in the UK and despite increasing understanding, evidence and official commitment to challenge these trends.
The success of anti-racism educational campaigns such as ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ cannot be disputed, yet research with perpetrators of racially abusive behaviour shows that they will know expressing ‘racist’ views is ‘wrong’. Many are aware of the stigma of ‘racism’ so racism becomes wrapped up in other explanations and resentments, based on fear, jealousy and perceived unfair preferential treatment most of which are supplied and underwritten by sections of the tabloid media and current political discourse.
If Cameron really understood the drivers of racist hostility and violence then he probably wouldn’t need a summit but even he must know that discrimination is now shaped around different language and that the language currently being used around low-skilled migrants is fuelling a resentment and a hatred that becomes hard to challenge. Many perpetrators of racist behaviour are able to identify the discrepancy between their views and feelings towards race and racism and the views they were meant to express as part of the accepted orthodoxy of anti-racism the ‘I am not racist but …’
Two weeks ago Cameron’s immigration minister Damian Green outlined his plans to cap immigration. In a speech to Policy Exchange he explicitly said that ‘there is a displacement of British-born workers by non-EEA migrants’. He then added that he was going to ‘raise the tone of the immigration debate’, seeing as Mr Green has recently been reprimanded by the head of the UK Statistics Authority for unethical behaviour in releasing evidence from departmental research in a misleading and prejudicial commentary which incited public feeling against people born abroad who, in relatively low numbers, had received work-related benefits, I wouldn’t be counting on him to the raise the tone of anything.
Green has proposed that he wants the immigration system to be ‘smarter’ and more ‘selective’ and those allowed to stay in the country to have a minimum earnings threshold of between ‘£31 and £49k a year’, the implication being that those low-skilled, vulnerable workers or, as the TUC has called them, ‘the hidden workforce’ – predominately women, from an ethnic minority or migrant workers in cleaning jobs, care roles, hospitality and agency jobs – are of ‘no value’.
When the government dismisses low-skilled, poorly qualified workers in low-paid employment as having ‘no value’ then unless trade unions work hard to engage them, they are repeatedly open to exploitation and abuse. The nature of vulnerable jobs makes union membership and organisation particularly hard: many are agency workers, forced into irregular shift patterns or on short-term temporary contracts. This makes unions’ work even more imperative if we are to fight the tyranny of ‘value’ only being what is in your paycheque at the end of each month.
Unions have been and should continue to be at the forefront in campaigning for social justice. Equality and fairness is, after all, why we join a union. It is why we organise and it is why we campaign. And it is this fight for equality that has helped challenge discriminating against women, part-time workers, black and minority ethnic workers and it is why unions have successfully led campaigns against the BNP and EDL in our communities.
Unions are there to make a case for digging deeper than ‘political correctness’, to address the systematic and structural inequalities that bring race into focus as channel for anger, rage and disaffection. When it comes to race there are a multitude of embedded tensions and antagonisms that need to be challenged but they need to challenged not just on the football pitch but in our hotels, factories, cafes, streets, schools, restaurants, offices …
Jenny Simms is director of Unions21 and writes the Union Matters column for Progress
BNP, David Cameron, EDL, football, jobs, Policy Exchange, racism, Stephen Lawrence, Trade unions, TUC, Women