Racial inequality and migration

Last Updated:
August 23, 2021
The Issues

How has Covid-19 affected racial inequalities in the UK?

Black and minority ethnic (BME) residents of the UK have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in two distinct ways. First, they have suffered worse health outcomes, with people of colour both more likely to contract the virus and less likely to survive it than white people. Public Health England has highlighted how pre-existing inequalities, including the impact of racism and discrimination, have contributed to these unequal health outcomes. BME people are also more likely to work in frontline, 'key worker' roles where they have been more exposed to the virus.

Second, long-standing economic inequalities between white and BME Britons, a product of structural and historical factors, have been exacerbated by the effects of the economic downturn. People from ethnic minority groups have been more likely to lose their jobs and to experience problem debt as a result of Covid-19. Ethnic minority households on average have far less wealth than white households with which to weather economic hardship.

Prioritising racial justice in the economy

An argument widely made by those seeking to address racial inequalities is that policy is typically made without any assessment of the impact on different ethnic groups, and therefore without specific plans to counter racial inequality. This was a particular criticism of the UK government in relation to Covid-19, given the disproportionate vulnerability of BME groups. Equality impact assessments of policy when it is being made are now widely advocated.

There are now widespread calls for mandatory ethnic pay gap reporting for larger firms, in the same way as gender pay gap reporting.

Research on tackling racial inequalities shows the importance of mandated targets and positive action within equality law, the de-biasing of recruitment and progression processes, mentoring and leadership programmes, diversity and unconscious bias training, and the adoption of explicitly anti-racist and action-oriented approaches to organisational culture. Adoption of the ‘Rooney rule’, under which at least one BME candidate is required to be shortlisted for job vacancies (originally introduced in the US National Football League) is often advocated.

By using social value criteria in procurement processes (requiring high quality practices from suppliers and contractors), governments and public bodies can mandate action on racial equality, including on low pay. Overall, however, more fundamental economic change is likely to be needed if the legacy of historic and structural discrimination is to be eliminated.

Migration and economic justice

People born outside the UK make up an estimated 14% of the UK’s population, or 9.5 million people, and just over half of BME residents of the UK were born overseas. Tackling racial inequality is therefore closely connected to improving the economic position of migrants to the UK. Discriminatory practices can particularly affect migrants, and public attitudes to immigration have impacts on the wider BME community.  

Covid-19 has highlighted both the positive contribution migrants make to society and the challenges they face. Migrants are disproportionately likely to work in 'key worker' jobs. Notably, around 20% of care workers are foreign nationals, the majority from outside the EU. Many of these roles are low paid.

Migrants often have restricted access to public services and financial support. Many effectively pay twice for NHS care, required to pay an NHS surcharge as well as their taxes. They face significant barriers to care despite their disproportionate contribution to the UK's health and care systems.

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