Britain:More Minorities Please!

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

Why the British Workforce needs more Ethnic Minorities in Top Places

Britain is becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, and will become more so

over the next two generations. Research shows that the majority of people welcome this and the opportunities that it presents to enriching society.

By Trevor Phillips

For many, work is the principal place where they come into contact with those from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

But tensions can and do arise and these changes will continue to present new challenges for employers and staff alike. It’s worth bearing in mind that one in two of all new entrants into the UK  labour market over the next 10 years will be from an ethnic minority background.

At the heart of this lies the question, how can people who are all very different in their traditions and lifestyles manage to live and work in the same space peacefully and prosperously?

Each year, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) receives thousands of complaints from employees about incidents at work, yet the law is ill-equipped to help in many of these cases.

For example, at the CRE we often get questions about time off for religious festivals such as Eid or Diwali or Hanukkah; and questions about the provision of prayer rooms.

We need to debate and come reach agreement on issues like this, though it would be better for everybody if we could consider these matters by looking at the potential benefits, rather than believing – wrongly in these cases – that the law insists we must do something.

Many will remember a well known supermarket chain that hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons last December. The stories were not about a rise in its market share or  new marketing campaign fronted by a high-profile celebrity chef.

Instead, they told of how the store faced the threat of legal action for alleged racial discrimination after store managers demanded that their Muslim employees produce their passports to prove they had the right to work in Britain.

Many of the individuals concerned had worked for the company for many years. The supermarket in question accepted that their managers had handled the situation poorly adding they were fully committed to equality in the workplace.

Interestingly, they swiftly contacted the CRE to get a copy of the newly-published Code of Practice on Racial Equality in Employment. We now know that four of the Asian workers concerned complained about their treatment and the company have had to pay compensation after union protests (only £750).

Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to check whether or not employees have the right to work in Britain. New regulations have increased the potential penalties on employers if they do employ workers illegally. But singling out one group because of their ethnic origin is likely to be unlawful.

It is still the case that whatever class you belong to, race is an obstacle in employment and its impact on people’s life chances is not reducing with time. Asian and black workers earn up to £7,000 a year less than white people, while those from ethnic minorities are not managing to climb the career ladder at anywhere near the same rate as their white counterparts.

It’s for these reasons that the Government’s Ethnic Minority Employment Task Force has set a national target that, in a decade, nobody should be disadvantaged at work because of their ethnicity.

I’d like to briefly touch on the progression of ethnic minorities within both the public and private sectors. There is a lack of ethnic minority presence in the upper echelons of both sectors.

Permanent Secretaries now have diversity targets linked to their pay. This means that departmental targets and positive action programmes for junior staff will be included in performance discussions between the Cabinet Secretary and each Permanent Secretary.

Each government department must achieve targets for ethnic minority staff in the areas of leadership and accountability, recruitment and development, using positive action measures to achieve those targets.

Private sector companies could potentially access approximately £100bn worth of national and local government contracts if they can demonstrate that their workforce composition is representative of local communities, which in practice means employing people from ethnic minorities.

But what is our position right now?

Well if I take the private sector as an example, people from ethnic minorities are still under-represented in senior management and on the boards of UK FTSE 100 companies.

Research by Dr Val Singh of Cranfield School of Management illustrates that only in 2005 did we see the first UK born black African-Caribbean Director appointed, Ken Olisa of Reuters.

What does this lack of ethnic representation at board level mean in practice?

It means a narrowness of leadership perspective, a waste of talented people who bring new ideas and innovation to business and a lack of role models to attract the brightest individuals of the next generation. It means that both the public and private sectors are paying lip service to race equality.

Employers need to consider using positive action measures to train and encourage people from ethnic minorities to gain skills and apply for jobs in particular sectors and geographical locations throughout the UK.

Organisations need to create mentoring opportunities. Senior ethnic minority managers, CEOs, executive and non-executive directors need to mentor both male and female members of ethnic minorities working their way up the corporate ladder. People from ethnic minorities must see role models from their own ethnic background.

Let us take Tim Campbell, the winner of last year’s BBC programme, The Apprentice, as an example. A black  man, brought up by his lone parent mother with one other sibling has changed people’s perceptions.

He is a role model for ethnic minorities. He moved from being a transport manager with London underground earning £27k to working for Amstrad earning £100k.

This is the sort of media promotion that you want as employers. You want to be known for recruiting the best talent. You don’t want your company’s name blackened by the media for bad employment practices.

Phillips is the chair of Commission for Racial Equality – Britain’s race watchdog.



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