Race in the workplace is complicated; anyone, employer or employee, will tell you as much. Work is the place in our lives where culture, values and rules most often collide. The combination can seem tangled and difficult but it should not hide what is obvious: there are unforgivable levels of discrimination in British workplaces, and the way to begin dealing with them is by intervening on pay.
You can picture pay discrimination in a host of ways but it is hard to find one which looks pretty. At the individual level, a black, male graduate is likely on average to earn £3.90 an hour less than his white counterpart; that is after you have controlled for his qualifications, the industry he is working in, the type of contract he is on and any other factor that could legitimately explain the difference. The aggregate picture is no better. The nearly-two million BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) workers in the UK are losing out on about £3.2bn of income a year according to a calculation by the Resolution Foundation: “a huge blow to the living standards of those affected”.
The inequalities – to put it plainly, the injustices – are solid and remarkably impervious to legislation; more than 50 years of race equality laws have brought the United Kingdom to this point. Nor is discrimination confined to pay. From the moment they apply for a job members of ethnic minorities come off second best. A candidate with an African or Asian-sounding name has to send in twice as many CVs as a white candidate to get the same number of interviews, and promotions are harder to come by. The causes are more to do with power than with education, qualification or ambition.
Just because the problems can appear maze-like it does not mean that the answer is a map. A bulldozer will do instead, and there is one that works. The legislation which forced businesses to reveal their gender pay gap was painful for companies, direct and imperfect. But on balance it did much more good than harm. The government has just closed its consultation on a plan to demand the same transparency on the ethnicity pay gap. It should make up its mind very quickly that it is a good idea and introduce the legislation urgently.
Openness will not solve everything. But every month when the payslip arrives it may feel to the people who benefit like more progress than they have seen in decades. And it will show that business understands what it takes to deal with ‘burning injustices’: it takes a determination to intervene.