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Coronavirus - Disparate impact across ethnic backgrounds - UK

  • United Kingdom
  • Coronavirus - Workforce issues
  • Employment law

15-07-2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone in different ways. In the workplace, the effect of the pandemic on work and working arrangements was quickly realised. Other effects have however often been realised at a slower pace. One such effect is the disparate impact that the pandemic has had on different groups of workers.

In this first briefing in our series considering the COVID-19 pandemic and diversity issues, we consider the impact of the pandemic on those from different ethnic backgrounds, including what practical steps employers can take to address disparities. In future briefings in this series, we will consider the implications in relation to gender, age, and disability.

Vulnerable staff – emerging data

Evidence started to appear earlier this year that those from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds may be disproportionately affected by the virus. In a report published by Public Health England, it was highlighted that after accounting for the effect of sex, age, deprivation and region, people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had around twice the risk of death when compared to people of white British ethnicity, with other ethnic groups having between 10% and 50% higher risk.

Whilst the data is compelling, what was missing was the reason for the disparity and any recommendations for addressing that. A further Public Health England report followed, summarising a rapid literature review and feedback from external stakeholder engagement. That report noted a number of factors that could be driving the association between COVID-19 health outcomes and ethnicity, including social and economic inequalities (including in population density, housing and household composition, and income), occupational risk, use of public transport, discrimination and stigma and prevalence of conditions that increase the severity of disease.

As the report notes however, determining the relative contributions made by different factors is challenging, as they do not all act independently.

Coronavirus - assessing risk

The Government has published generic and sectoral guidance on steps to be taken to ensure safe working for businesses, including carrying out risk assessments. However, there is currently no mention within that guidance of assessments addressing COVID-19 risk related to ethnicity.

From a health and safety perspective, the absence of guidance presents some difficulty in assessing ethnicity-related workplace risk. Further, without there being any legal obligation to do so, very few UK employers actively capture ethnicity data, making the assessment of risk even more difficult. That is not to say, however, the risk should be ignored. Employers should ensure that risk assessments are completed based on the information available, that employees are reassured that the latest government guidance is being monitored and acted upon and that there are appropriate mechanisms in place to enable workers to raise concerns about their individual situation so that appropriate action can be determined.

The Public Health England report made a number of broad recommendations, including the development of “culturally competent occupational risk assessment tools that can be employed in a variety of occupational settings”. This seems a likely development, however it is clear that further clarity will be required around what a culturally competent risk assessment should include, how to identify those who are most at risk based on the data available and an identification of those occupations considered to expose individuals from different ethnicities to the highest risk.

Regular risk assessments should however sit alongside wider strategies within the workplace to identify and address ongoing health risks, including encouraging workers to utilise health services and employee assistance programmes. Ensuring that steering groups and health and wellbeing bodies are representative of the composition of the workforce may also encourage usage.

Wider indicators

Addressing health risk inequalities is, however, only the tip of the iceberg and may offer only a superficial solution if more general underlying inequalities are present. As the Public Health England reports have demonstrated, health disparities between different groups can offer a window into the existence of wider disparities, including employment inequalities.

Identifying groups within the workforce whose health has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic may therefore offer a catalyst for employers to review diversity and inclusion initiatives more widely. The issue of pay inequalities is just one aspect of this. Economic disadvantage has been consistently linked to poor COVID-19 outcomes, possibly because individuals may be less financially-able to take early protective measures such as remaining absent from work.

Ethnicity pay reporting and regulation continues to be debated. The conclusions of the government consultation on the issue of ethnicity pay reporting are awaited, which may now be given additional momentum as a result of a petition calling for mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting having reached a sufficient number of signatures for the issue to be considered for debate in parliament. There are also calls for organisations to show their commitment to ethnic diversity by reporting on their ethnicity pay data on a voluntary basis.

Discrimination risks

There is often a tension between taking action intended to protect vulnerable workers from risk and not discriminating in taking such action. Effective communication and a properly considered and proportionate approach, taking account of equality impact, will be fundamental to addressing such tension.

It will be imperative to the success of measures that workers are not only consulted, but are also allowed to play a key role in the development of roll-out strategies, where possible. Where measures in relation to workers considered vulnerable result in different employment arrangements, thereby potentially creating a two-tier system and heightening inequalities, it will be particularly important to give careful consideration to the approach and the justification for it and to engage with workers in relation to proposals.

Effective mechanisms for concerns

Ensuring an effective mechanism for raising concerns will also be an important part of an approach that seeks to avoid inequalities.

The Public Health England report and previous analyses have highlighted the link between ethnicity and the reluctance of individuals to raise concerns, including about PPE or risk. Further, the issue of stigma connected to ethnicity and COVID-19. As the report states, “There is a widespread stigma and fear associated with contracting COVID-19 for the individual involved, their family, and their community. Chinese communities reported experiencing racism and being subjected to violent crimes because of COVID -19”.

Employers should therefore ensure that diversity and disciplinary policies are re-enforced and any training needs addressed. Further, that there are effective avenues to raise concerns and that workers feel empowered to utilise those mechanisms. This may require analysis of the use of such mechanisms by different groups within the workforce, and taking measures to address disparities in usage.

However, going further and taking a deep dive approach to consider and address underlying issues will also be fundamental if mechanisms are to be truly effective. Education and training, effective networks, support groups, mentoring (including reverse mentoring) and sponsoring are just some of the measures that could be taken.

Summary

Many employers have over recent years made significant progress in diversity and inclusion initiatives, although most will acknowledge that much more is needed to be done. In the context of COVID-19 and beyond, seeking to ensure a safe workplace and putting inclusivity and the needs of employees at the heart of that response is a natural and important extension of such efforts.

However, the disparities in health outcomes of different ethnic groups has been demonstrated to reflect wider social, economic and employment inequalities, highlighting that health outcome disparities are only part of the wider landscape of diversity and inclusion challenges. Whilst ensuring appropriate mechanisms to assess workplace risks is undoubtedly important, identifying and addressing workplace factors that may be contributing to disparities presents an opportunity for real change.

Equality is a key concern for all businesses, however issues can often be challenging. Drawing on extensive experience and in-depth knowledge, our team of discrimination lawyers can assist in navigating the issues and finding appropriate solutions in this complex and sensitive legal area.

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