Making equality more than a buzzword

Posted in Off The Rails's blog on Thu, 17/09/2020 - 17:28,
Network Rail

This article, by rail worker Becky Crocker, was first published in the Solidarity newspaper, here.


In recent months I have become increasingly aware of the lack of diversity in my workplace, a Network Rail office in London.

My suspicions about Network Rail were confirmed when I read in its 2019 Ethnicity Pay Gap Report that only 8.6% of its workforce is from a black or ethnic minority background compared to the national BAME population of 13%.

According to the report, the lowest proportion of BAME workers is in the Operations and Maintenance section, where the overwhelming majority of Network Rail’s employees work. Those are the people who go out fixing the tracks. BAME workers make up over 16% of clerical and technical staff and 10.7% of management grades.

Network Rail also has an ethnicity pay gap, which is calculated in the same way as the gender pay gap. It’s the percentage difference in the average hourly pay of white workers compared to BAME workers. Network Rail’s median ethnicity pay gap is 8.7% compared to the UK average of 3.8%. For black workers the gap is 10.7%.

A major reason for the gap is that the lowest paid quartile of the workforce has the highest proportion of BAME workers (21.8%), while the top earning quartile has the lowest proportion of BAME workers (10.1%).

In response, Network Rail has launched the Race Matters strategy and set itself a target of a 13% BAME workforce by 2024. It is focusing on increasing the representation of BAME people in senior positions as a way to tackle the pay gap. It pledges to listen to its workforce, identify barriers to inclusion and publish data.

But what actually needs to happen to produce a change? There is no colour bar in Network Rail, as there used to be across sections of British Rail. There are no exclusionary policies that we can point to.

As a white person, I have observed discrimination towards black colleagues which is often subtle. If you’re a black person, you’re cut a lot less slack if you’re struggling with your work. If you’re a white person, you’re “all right”, “you’re one of the lads”. From what I see, the expectations of incompetence, or underappreciation of achievement, seem to be doubly present if you’re a black woman.

But a lot of this is impressionistic. How do you quantify the impact and make sense of everyday comments and encounters?

Just as Network Rail has said it will “listen”, our rail unions need to do the same. In an industry with still relatively high rates of unionisation and pay, the rail unions, especially the RMT, are used to applauding their successes, including in the fight against racism. But listening will also probably mean hearing some uncomfortable truths.

Does the behaviour of colleagues, including union members, contribute to a culture of subtle racism and discrimination? How can we build workplaces where “equality” is more than just a management buzzword?

We might look into the history of the colour bars in the rail industry or political education about race and class oppression. If our unions challenge themselves, then Black Lives Matter can begin to have a lasting impact on subtle but pervasive racism.

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