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12 October 2018updated 03 Sep 2021 12:14pm

Reporting the BME pay gap is the first step in righting old workplace wrongs

The pay gap is a symptom of a wider culture in which black and ethnic minority workers are undervalued and underpromoted. 

By Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

There is an ethnicity pay gap in the UK. That much we already know from years of research from organisations like the Equality and Human Rights Commission; and beyond that, many of us can see and feel it in our lonely experiences at workplaces.

In an announcement this week, Theresa May said that many ethnic minorities “feel like they are hitting a brick wall when it comes to career progression” and for once I actually agree with her. Following a Race Disparity Audit in 2017, May’s solution to this problem is to launch a consultation on whether mandatory reporting of salaries based on race will help address disparities between pay and career prospects of minorities. It seems long overdue, pulling policies from Labour, which last year said it would introduce an equal pay audit requirement for large companies if they came into power. If mandatory reporting comes into play, it might actually force companies to take action to address an issue that isn’t going away by itself.

Anecdotally, while we seem to be entering the era of frequent, visible success stories that include ethnic minorities, I still see many of my peers struggling in the workplace. This isn’t just an issue of educational attainment: in 2016, it was reported that black graduates earned an average 23 per cent less than their white counterparts, with a 10 per cent deficit overall from all ethnic minority backgrounds. We are actively held back by the fact there are so few people of colour in positions above us, by the fact that we are less likely to come from the type of families where nepotism is going to bolster our employment opportunities, and by the thorny prick of racism.

I will never forget the story of Dawn Butler, the UK’s third ever black woman MP, being mistaken for a cleaner in the House of Commons. On entering a private members-only lift in the early Noughties, another MP said to her, “This lift really isn’t for cleaners”; one of “so many incidents” of racism she had suffered in parliament. Many people still cannot fathom that ethnic minorities can be in positions of power, and continually fail to open the gates to put us there. And on the flipside, in the journalism industry, in most newsrooms I can say with some confidence that I am more likely to find my black community in low-waged cleaners and service workers that in anyone above junior positions.

In comparison to the outrage and uproar over the gender pay gap figures, the reaction to the ethnic minority pay gap over the years has been muted at best. It was ITN who led the bandwagon to a less than enthusiastic response earlier this year by voluntarily releasing stats which showed that they paid their non-white staff 20.8 per cent less than their white colleagues, a worse discrepancy than its gender pay gap. Women at the company are paid a mean average of 19.6 per cent less than men.

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As Natalie Morris, one of ITN’s digital employees, wrote in gal-dem: “The relative silence and lack of allyship on this issue is hugely disappointing, but not unsurprising. In an industry that is 94 per cent white, it’s not exactly a shock that the plight of BAME employees falls on deaf ears. As in so many areas of life, it seems people can only drum-up righteous indignation when it directly affects them – or people who look like them.”

But the BBC, which arguably had the biggest pay-related backlash following the Carrie Gracie saga, in which the BBC China editor resigned over unfair pay, is proving that government intervention into issues of equality can work. The gender pay gap at the organisation is closing, with the broadcaster reporting “strong progress” in reducing differences in male and female earnings. The hope is that this new pressure on companies to reveal their race pay gap will be just as consequential. ITN has already committed to halving the BAME pay gap within five years.

But we shouldn’t be complacent in our analysis of the situation. Even amongst ethnic minorities, there are discrepancies in earnings. Last year, the Resolution Foundation discovered that black African and Bangladeshi graduates are twice as likely to work in low-paying occupations as Indian, white and Chinese graduates. Some ethnic minorities have it worse than others and the issue cannot be simplified. In the US, the figures are hugely shocking – black people in 2015 earned just 75 per cent as much as white people in median hourly earnings, and wealth amongst black and Latino people has been declining since the 1980s. Meanwhile, people from Asian American backgrounds tend to earn more than white people.

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Beyond that, it’s interesting that May is so keen to promote the idea of smashing down the brick wall and levelling out the playing field, when so many ethnic minorities have been desperately harmed by austerity measures brought in by her government. Last year, Butler claimed that “austerity is a failed Tory economic project, which has hit African, Caribbean and Asian women the hardest”, and it’s easy to believe her.

My mum, who recently retrained as a nurse, is entering the workforce as a black woman in her 50s at a time when nurses are still reeling from the effects of a seven-year salary freeze. It was only in June that they managed to wangle a 6.5 per cent rise. On average, black nurses earn £2,700 less than their white counterparts and while BAME staff make up 25 per cent of the NHS workforce, they are just 7 per cent of senior managers. Some of them would have been hit hardest by that pay freeze and it makes me doubly disgusted that the racism that that their forebears suffered while helping to set up the NHS is reflected in their salaries today.

As a freelance journalist, I feel relatively in control of my finances; I can say no to certain things and yes to others based on the rate that I’m offered. It’s unlikely I’ll ever find out if on average white men doing the same type of writing as me are paid a whole lot more. But for those people of colour embedded in already difficult working conditions at companies which don’t value them, for people like my mum who are part of a public sector which should already be aware of the problem, change, and reporting on the ethnic minority pay gap, couldn’t come soon enough. We all have to survive in this capitalist society somehow.