Following the release of latest report by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) into Covid deaths by occupation, there have been increased concerns over inequality and working practices of BAME workers, especially during the current pandemic outbreak.
The report noted that up till May 25th, 17 occupations were found to have significantly increased death rates due to the pandemic, including taxi drivers and chauffeurs (135 deaths), security guards (107 deaths), and bus and coach drivers (54 deaths). What was more disturbing was that out of the 17 specific occupations that had increased death rates, 11 had a high proportion of black and ethnic minority workers working in them. The ONS report, however, does not record deaths by ethnicity and occupation.
Unite, Britain and Ireland’s largest union with members working across the economy, has drawn public attention to the high proportion of deaths among BAME workers. Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland said: “Many of the professions with the highest number of deaths are not only low paid but have both a long and unsocial hours culture, which often creates specific health problems over time”. She also noted: “It is absolutely imperative that there is a greater understanding of the disproportionate impact of Covid on BAEM workers and this must be examined in order to ensure that everyone is fully protected”. The UK has suffered from the pandemic across sectors and communities, but the government is urged by Unite to take a “hard look at why certain workers were particularly vulnerable to Covid-19”, said Holland, while urging for an inquiry into the same.
Regarding death rates among the healthcare workers, the PA news agency has verified that among the deaths of 166 frontline UK healthcare workers with Covid-19 since April end this year, 100 workers came from BAME backgrounds, 39 (23%) were white and 27 (16%) were of unknown ethnic origin. The government has been investigating the reasons behind BAME communities being disproportionately affected in this sector too. The possible reasons are thought to be social, cultural and economic factors.
Joan Saddler, director of partnerships and equality at the NHS Confederation, said that the BAME staff seemed more likely to work in lower-level jobs on general wards, where there might be lesser PPE provision as compared to high intensive critical units. The pay gap and recruitment in UK’s industries have been a long-running issue, and these inequalities are laying bare the inherent structural problem of an unequal society. For instance, in UK’s IT industry, according to the British Computer Society’s 2020 Diversity Report, which analyses workforce trends using data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), BAME professionals are less likely to be in positions of higher responsibility than those of white ethnicity – despite being better qualified on the whole.
An inquiry into Covid-19 deaths also raises the question of faulty or insecure working practices. According to the ONS report, the highest rate was seen in elementary process plant occupations, with 73.3 deaths per 100,000 men (62 deaths, including workers in factories, such as those who clean industrial machines, and those who pack goods). The second highest rate was seen in the elementary security occupations, with 68.2 deaths per 100,000 men (113 deaths, including security guards and related occupations).
Elementary construction workers (42.1 deaths per 100,000 men, or 36 deaths) and elementary service occupations (38.3 deaths per 100,000 men, or 45 deaths) also had very high rates of death involving Covid-19.
Elementary service occupations include jobs such as hospital porters, bar staff and leisure and theme park attendants. The figures from the ONS do not prove conclusively that higher death rates are caused by the dangers they face at their job, and they also do not take into account ethnicity or whether the person lives in a more deprived part of town. Despite this, the patterns point to a larger problem which needs further investigation along with collection of data at a more granular level by the ONS.