2017 will be a defining moment in unions’ fight against discrimination
The British people’s decision to leave the EU is set to dominate the TUC’s work over the next few years. And I believe that, alongside securing a deal which protects jobs, Brexit poses two central challenges.
The first challenge is to fight racism.
Since the referendum result, we’ve seen an upsurge in xenophobia, hate crime and other forms of racism.
Clearly, the vote on our membership of the EU did not cause racism in and of itself. But it certainly fanned the flames of a fire which we thought was previously under control.
The tone of the referendum debate was frankly unbefitting of a supposedly civilised democratic society. Negative portrayal of migrants; scaremongering about Turkish accession; those disgusting UKIP “breaking point” posters – we were force-fed a steady diet of nativist vitriol by some of those campaigning to leave the EU.
And the upshot? Almost two in five people quizzed by the TUC felt that “Britain’s efforts to accept other cultures have gone too far and this is a chance to take our country back”.
Now it’s reassuring to see that more people, just over half, were more likely to agree that “Britain should be a tolerant country where people of different cultures have equal rights”. But the referendum has, for some, seemingly legitimised what was regarded as unpalatable just a year or two ago.
Views once aired in the privacy of far right online chatrooms are increasingly being aired in mainstream media and political debate.
And we are seeing the consequences. An increase in Islamophobic abuse, especially directed at women. An increase in anti-Semitic incidents. And attacks on immigrants of all backgrounds – including the murder of a Polish man in Harlow.
Never in recent memory have our core ideals – equality; tolerance; freedom from discrimination – felt more under threat. Never have they been more needed than now.
That’s why the TUC has led the calls for a robust response. From government. From the police and justice system. From unions and employers.
We’ve called on ministers to establish a Commission to look at hate crime. Worked with the EHRC, Acas, CBI and other organisations to promote zero tolerance to racism in workplace. We’ve published a new guide for union reps on how to tackle race abuse, with more guidance and support on how to raise these issues collectively to come. We’re also calling for anti-discrimination rights and protections to be strengthened.
The second challenge is defending our equality rights.
EU law has had a hugely positive impact on equality rights in the UK.
The 2010 Equality Act, sex discrimination and equal pay laws, protections from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief or age – all have been shaped by EU law.
And with Brexit looming, the TUC’s position is simple: UK workers must continue to benefit from at least the same protections as their EU counterparts.
The best way to guarantee that in the future is for the UK to continue to be part of the single market. Any new arrangements we negotiate with the EU must include continued compliance with EU equality and employment rights, including access to the European Courts.
Naturally, much will depend on what form Brexit takes. And while the TUC is lobbying hard for the UK to remain in the single market, we’re also pressing the government to improve our equality and anti-discrimination infrastructure – reversing the damage its policies have done.
The prime minister made some powerful statements when she took office about governing for all and tackling discrimination and disadvantage in the criminal justice system, education and the workplace.
Naturally, we welcome reviews of BME representation on company boards and barriers to BME progression in the workplace and action to address our persistent gender pay gap.
But these things feel like token gestures when much more comprehensive action is needed.
If the government really cared about equality it would abolish tribunal fees. Or at the very least, suspend them until their impact is properly evaluated.
Some 9,000 fewer workers a month are going to tribunal now. And there have been big drops in race, disability and sex discrimination claims.
Meanwhile, the catastrophic cuts to the Equality and Human Rights Commission must be reversed. The EHRC’s funding has been slashed from £62 million in 2010 to just £22 million now. There is a further 25% cut in funding and more job losses on the way. And the EHRC’s helpline that gave it direct contact with people who have suffered discrimination has been shut.
The government has commissioned its own equality advice service in its place. And it’s just awarded the contract to G4S. So we now have G4S, not the EHRC, giving advice to the victims of discrimination. This all shows us that we’re going to have to be vigilant as Brexit looms.
Theresa May says our rights are safe so long as she’s in office. But even if that’s true, we have seen since 2010 how rights can remain on paper but be eroded in practice.
If the guarantees we currently have in EU law are removed, we know what the next step will be: the reintroduction of caps on compensation in discrimination cases.
So the key point is this. We must stop any further dilution of existing equality protections, and we must press for them to be strengthened on paper and in practice.
And central to this is a fair legal framework for trade unions and union representatives. Because without strong, effective trade unions, we won’t be able to defeat discrimination, prejudice and inequality in our workplaces and our communities.
– This blog is taken from my speech to the TUC Discrimination Law Conference, 22 January 2017.