It’s been a hard few days, but for many of us this is not unexpected.
As Black people die on the streets of America, Donald Trump tweets about “law and order” while readying troops to deploy against his own people.
Simultaneously, we are seeing disproportionate deaths from within Black Asian Minority and Ethnic communities due to Covid-19 across the globe, including here in the UK.
The time for change is now. It is long overdue.
I found my voice over two decades ago in a clothing factory, standing up for myself when I was racially abused. I’m a woman of Asian heritage, proud daughter of an immigrant. My first political experience was walking with my fearless father who walked us through a National Front march – despite the police urging him not to. Decades later, I still count it as one of the scariest days of my life. I am now one of the most senior BAME trade unionists in the country.
“We never dreamed such a report would simply state the dreadful reality faced by BAME people in the UK without offering recommendations remedy, recourse to safety or justice.”
Throughout my life I have come to know and feel first-hand the structural issues and challenges facing people of colour, and women of colour, in our society, institutions and in our workplaces.
As National Secretary for Public Services at GMB, I represent hundreds of thousands of working people who are on the front line of tackling covid-19.
I hear first-hand the fears of people leaving their homes to go to work, terrified they will catch the virus and pass it on to their work colleagues or their families. It’s very real and we all need to do more to protect our precious resources – our workers.
When the roll calls of the dead are read out, I see and I feel the stark inequalities that face all of us.
If you are working class and if you are from a BAME background you are more likely to die. If you work in care, nursing, security, and professional driving you are more likely to die.
Of course, we know this. GMB has been calling for PPE and proper safety measures in workplaces since the start of this pandemic. We’ve been calling for equality impact assessments.
It was not a shock that Matt Hancock’s review said that higher infection and mortality rates in BAME communities could be attributed to poor housing conditions, lower incomes, occupations with higher risk profiles, inadequate access to public services and a greater risk of underlying health conditions. But even those in the trade union movement sceptical of Tory Ministers never dreamed such a report would simply state the dreadful reality without offering recommendations remedy, recourse to safety or justice.
It is difficult to understand what Mr Hancock thought the report he commissioned was supposed to achieve. Then overnight we learn section(s) of the report, that focussed on impacts of structural and institutional racism, may have been removed. The government has so far denied this is the case, but if this is true, it’s a major breach of trust and will not help build confidence among the communities most affected.
But how would this cabinet understand the lives we lead? Day after day, week after week we see privileged ministers (mainly men) reciting the number of dead at a press conference. They clap for our carers while doing nothing to address the plight of the overworked, undervalued and underpaid. Only last week, NHS workers took the knee outside Downing Street as the Prime Minister started to clap for workers, because those on the front line know more can and should be done.
We need answers. That is why GMB is calling for an independent public inquiry and many have started to join our call.
Because here’s the thing – right at the heart of this, many Black Asian Minority and Ethnic people simply do not believe that all lives matter equally to the government.
If they did, why are we dying?
We’re dying because while this virus does not discriminate, our society, our systems, our institutions, our policies, practices and economy do. Post Macpherson we were going to build an inclusive Britain, eliminate unlawful discrimination and make our institutions fit for purpose. Whilst audits were carried out and recommendations tabled, many have forgotten why we had to amend the Race Relations Act back in 2000.
Our value for too many is linked to our value in the economy. When you know BAME workers are more likely to be low paid and insecure that’s not just a problem – it’s a scandal.
We’re at a turning point in so many ways. We must not allow the response to this pandemic to further entrench inequality, we must fight for better.
We’ll only change this together – be it on the streets of Washington DC or in board rooms, workplaces and communities here in the UK.
Now is the time to stand up.
Build solidarity, reach out to us, work with us, our strength is in our numbers and when we speak with a collective voice we cannot be ignored. I see that in my work every day as a union organiser. So take action. Join a trade union, register to vote, protest, get active in your community.
Doing nothing isn’t an option.
Rehana Azam is national secretary of GMB Union.