Pandemic redundancies speak volumes about the real state of progress for women of colour

Pandemic redundancies speak volumes about the real state of progress for women of colour
Comment: Precarious and casualised, women of colour face lower pay, under employment, unfair treatment and discrimination at a time when we need them most, writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
13 Nov, 2020
Women of colour have been disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 crisis [Getty]
As the UK experiences its deepest recession since the Great Depression, one thing has become abundantly clear: It's the oppressed who have suffered disproportionately from the highest infection rates, deaths, job losses and increased poverty. 

The struggle faced by people of colour in particular during this period is well documented - so much so it even forced the government to issue an inquiry into the reasons for this disparity. 

As though the increased threat of infection was not already cause for alarm, people of colour are also being left more vulnerable in the long-term by having to take on high-risk, precarious jobs and are more likely to be made redundant. The House of Commons Library identified that these communities are concentrated in much larger numbers in industries most affected by the financial crisis. Sectors such as transport, storage, accommodation and food services have been making the most redundancies, and are also where people of colour are overrepresented. 

Last week, the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the federation of trade unions across England and Wales released some harrowing details about how women of colour in particular are disproportionately impacted. The report found that women of colour are twice as likely than their white counterparts to find themselves in insecure jobs. Precarious and casualised, they also face lower pay, under employment, unfair treatment and discrimination. The racism they are likely to face is both structural and personal, with many sighting verbal abuse in the workplace.   

Women of colour are twice as likely than their white counterparts to find themselves in insecure jobs

These issues are being felt across the board. The higher education sector which is currently also going through an unprecedented period of crisis after years of privatisation is showing a similar trend. The recent news that over 400 staff members at the University of East London are facing redundancies, with a strong bias towards staff members of colour has shocked many. 

The targeted nature of those redundancies is captured powerfully by the fact that Professor Gargi Bhattacharyya was among those facing job losses, despite her international renown for both her scholarly work and teaching on racial capitalism, and her tireless defence of countless Black academics and students through the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU).

Professor Bhattacharyya often found herself battling for her own job while relentlessly serving the wider community on campaigns against racism, fascism, xenophobia and colonialism-to name a few. It's heartbreaking to think that someone of her stature could be treated in such a disposable manner. But it is clearly because of what Bhattacharya represents and the threat she poses, that the university is attempting to get rid of her.

So, the likes of the University of East London can attempt to hide behind the financial losses exacerbated by the pandemic in order to justify taking the jobs of Professor Gargi Bhattacharya and her colleagues, but we must be aware that the reasons go much deeper than that. They are connected to a growing, state-led backlash against the left, anti-racist movements, and communities of colour.

Read more: It's Tory austerity and racism that's killing us, not Covid-19

This has been the political trend set by our government. It is no coincidence that following the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the UK, and the delayed findings of the inquiry into impacts of Covid-19 on BAME communities, the Tories - and the wealthy they represent - choose to wage a campaign against any initiative that raises race consciousness. 

The UK government has witnessed how mass anti-racist revolts inspired by the violence of the Trump administration largely delivered his recent defeat. They know full well that the evidence of their neglect and role in heightening the oppression of people of colour, is overwhelming. That is why their response is to capitalise on such communities being under fire, in order to deliver even more blows. 

Allowing any person or movement that seeks to provide a deeper insight into our political realities, a historical perspective on why the poor are still poor and racism is still alive and kicking, means the threat of progressive mobilisations only grows stronger. The most critical elements of our education system are being cut in the UK and other western nations, while anti-capitalism is being banned from being even discussed in schools.

This morally bankrupt government feels the pressure so intensely that they add insult to injury, by attacking organisations and groups that fight to address injustices and inequality, while also turning existing official institutions against the very communities they were set up to serve.

Appointing the likes of David Goodhart, a champion of the cruel and racist hostile environment policies, to the board of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is a powerful symbol of this tendency that aims to eviscerate existing institutional protections for the poorest and the most oppressed. 

It's heartbreaking to think that someone of her stature could be treated in such a disposable manner

We are living through a period of surreal parallels. 

On the one hand every corporate brand and establishment is now proclaiming that "Black Lives Matter" and the world celebrates the first Black woman to be elected Vice President in the US, while the violence against people of colour is growing at an alarming rate - including at the hands of those same brands.  

Our government dares to celebrate its own diversity while waging a ruthless war on the intellectual and political traditions that fight against the structural barriers they erect. Universities sell ground-breaking ideas, cutting edge research and "multicultural" staff and student bodies, while destroying their departments and sacking their employees. 

The tension between rhetoric and reality grows more stark by the day. The middle cannot hold. And the need for radical change becomes more obvious with each passing crisis. The question now is whether we intervene collectively for that change to be positive, transformative, and regenerative. Or do we leave those in power take us further down the rabbit hole?  

To support Professor Bhattacharyya and staff at UEL visit this resource

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.