UKREN blog

Wednesday 8 October 2014

The impact of cuts in the public sector on employment of Black and ethnic minorities in the UK

The election of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010 marked the introduction of the politics of austerity in the UK. When announcing his first budget, the chancellor signalled his intention to make unprecedented cuts to government spending to the level of £83 Billion in the next five years and targeted welfare budgets, overseas aid and public sector jobs and servicers. The implications of this announcement were that over the next five years up to a million jobs would disappear from the public sector.

A number of public sector unions were concerned that this level of cuts would have a disproportionate impact on Black and Minority Ethnic communities. Black communities had been recruited from the Caribbean and the Asian sub continent in large numbers to work in public services in the 1950’s and 60’s when there were severe labour shortages in the UK economy. As a consequence, in the UK, Black and Minority Ethnic workers were able to continue to secure employment in the public sector despite problems of discrimination in the labour market.

In order to assess how public sector cuts were affecting Black and Minority ethnic workers, the Trade Union Congress and a number of trade unions commissioned the Runnymede Trust to carry out some research into whether there had been a disproportionate number of job losses of Black and Minority Ethnic workers. An important part of the project involved sending freedom of information questionnaires to all higher education institutions, National Health Service Trusts, local councils and universities across England asking for information on staff numbers. The response of public sector organisations that the Runnymede Trust asked for data was patchy with 87% response rate for local authorities, lower rates for NHS Trusts and a 50% response rate for higher education institutions. Even where authorities responded the information was not always comparable, making it difficult to obtain a true picture of the effect of public sector cuts on Black and Minority Ethnic workers.

Although the research indicated that there had been some loss of 23,835 jobs that were occupied by Black and Minority Ethnic public sector workers between 2010 and 2012 there was no clear evidence that they had suffered a disproportionate level of redundancy compared to white workers. On the surface this appeared to be a break with past recessions where Black and Minority Ethnic workers disproportionately lost their jobs and found it harder to regain employment. Austerity as instituted by the coalition government was based on the supposition that in order to stabilize the economy, there is a need to bring national debt under control through drastic cuts in government spending on the provision of public services. However, these austerity measures also hid an agenda to reshape the economy through privatisation of public services including health, education and the police and to destroy union organisation and hard won conditions of services to enable private interests to exploit the labour of public sector workers for profit. This in effect changed the employment relationship of workers in the public sector to one of full time stable employment to precarious employment characterised by agency work, self employment, temporary contracts and zero hours contract. This was a process that had started with public sector manual jobs in the 1980’s with the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering and has now become widespread. Whilst jobs disappeared from the realm of direct public sector employment they re-appeared in the private sector on significantly worse pay and conditions.

The TUC recently published figures showing that temporary working increased by 89,000 to reach 1,650,000 – nearly half (46 per cent) of the total rise in employment between December 2010 and December 2012. The analysis also showed that involuntary temporary work – people doing temp jobs because they cannot find permanent work – has been growing sharply for a number of years, increasing by 230,000 since 2005 so that by the end of 2012 the number of involuntary temporary workers had more than doubled to 655,000. Alongside this change, 80% of the 587,000 net new jobs since June 2010 have been in sectors where the average pay is £7.95 an hour or less and over 40 per cent of all the self-employed jobs created since mid-2010 are also part time.

These changes have a number of possible implications for Black and Minority Ethnic communities. Firstly, whilst the rise in unemployment from public sector cuts might not have been as high as anticipated, the quality and security of the types of employment in an area of the labour market to which they had access has drastically deteriorated. This is likely to increase the level of poverty in Black and Minority Ethnic communities. Secondly, Black and Minority Ethnic women who proportionately have high levels of representation in public sector jobs have been particularly vulnerable to both redundancy and changes to involuntary temporary working. Lastly, the shrinking of the public sector workforce has resulted in the closure of an area of the labour market that was accessible to Black and Minority Ethnic workers, resulting in an impact on the employment prospects of young people from these communities.

What the work undertaken by the Runnymede Trust for the TUC and trade unions has revealed is the need for more research on how the changes to more vulnerable employment as a result of public spending cuts is impacting on Black and Minority Ethnic communities. The research also highlighted the need for a more rigorous application of equality monitoring of changes to the workforce to occur as a matter of course across workplaces in the public sector. These are issues that the TUC will be taking forward more generally not only in relation to Black and Minority Ethnic workers’ employment in the public sector but also to enable the examination of the impact of the recent recession and labour market changes for Black and Minority Ethnic workers in the private sector.


Wilf Sullivan, Race Equality Officer, Trades Union Congress, and Treasurer of UKREN
This blog was first published on ENAR's webzine

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