Investigating Covid-19 deaths must include all workers, particularly BAEM (Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities) people, who contracted the virus at work. Doing so would then lay down future health, safety and welfare requirements to protect workers going forward. So says Middlesbrough bus driver and Unite equality rep Tan Rashid.
“Independent, credible studies such as ones by the University College London and the University of Oxford and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have revealed how one of the tragedies of the coronavirus has been the disproportionate number of deaths among BAEM people, including amongst workers, particularly within the NHS,” says Tan.
BAEM people account for over 30 per cent of Covid-19 deaths – compared with 14.5 per cent of the total population who are of BAEM backgrounds.
An Office for National Statistics (ONS) study that included control for geographical, demographic, socio-economic and health factors (including disability) to identify BAEM fatality risks from Covid-19 showed how even accounting for age, socio-demographic and self-reported health and disabilities, black men were 1.93 and black women were 1.89 times more likely to have a Covid-19 related-death than their white colleagues.
The ONS saw differences as partly a result of socio-economic disadvantage, but admitted that they could not fully explain the differences.
The ONS data has led to the NHS Confederation commenting “a comprehensive review…looking into issues of structural discrimination,” is required.
Tan agrees. “Around 44 per cent of black people work in public administration, education and health jobs compared to 31 per cent of white British people. Then 16 per cent of people from Asian backgrounds, like myself, work in transport and communication – double that of white British people. BAEM young people are 47 per cent more likely to be on zero hours contracts and thus less likely to qualify for government wage support schemes,” said Tan.
Tan also highlighted how thousands of migrant workers face being deported if their income drops below £18,000 annually. Such fears force people to continue going into work no matter how unhealthy they may be.
Front line workers
“More black than white people are on the front line – so it makes sense that more will get the virus – which they can then pass on to others – with possible fatal consequences. Every death is a tragedy,” said Tan, who has seen a number of previously fit and healthy friends die of the virus and has looked on with sadness at the high levels of deaths amongst bus workers, especially in London and the South East.
“I believe UK deaths compared to those across Europe are high because the government acted slowly, creating across workplaces a reluctance among employers to adopt social distancing requirements and provide PPE. Unite and other unions have improved safety at some workplaces and also successfully had staff furloughed,” said Tan.
Such were the levels of BAEM deaths that the government was forced into pushing Public Health England (PHE) into a rapid review into the disparities. PHE results were announced at the start of June. They have confirmed what we already know without offering any concrete steps to tackle the problem. This led to demands from such as Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor, for a full-blown public inquiry that would include a government commitment to act on its conclusions.
“I back such calls but that will take time. Meanwhile the best means of defending all workers is recruiting them to a union and getting them organised,” said Tan.
“Any inquiry I believe should examine if workers who have died contracted the virus at work. It took decades to establish that workers were dying from being in contact with asbestos. Consequently the rules and regulations were not strengthened quickly enough.
“I don’t like that the HSE is not adding deaths associated with Covid-19 to its deaths at work statistics and has announced it will release separate data about deaths associated with Covid-19 later.
“I hope this does not mean Covid-19 deaths amongst people with underlying health problems are recorded as due to the progression of a naturally occurring disease,” said Tan, “as this would mean employers and the government would escape their responsibilities. It would make it easier for a similar situation to recur in the future.
“We should be looking to ensure workplace deaths are fully investigated by all organisations and if that also means inquests are required that can only be for the long term good.”
In fact Unite is calling for an urgent ‘warts and all’ public inquiry into the death rates of workers from Covid-19 during the pandemic.
The union made its call following the publication on June 27 of the Office of National Statistics latest report into deaths by occupation up to May 25, 2020.
The ONS found that 17 occupations were found to have significantly increased death rates due to Covid-19 including taxi drivers and chauffeurs (135 deaths), security guards (107 deaths), and bus and coach drivers (54 deaths).
In further disturbing findings, the report notes that of the 17 specific occupations that had increased death rates, 11 had a high proportion of black and ethnic minority (BAEM) workers working in them. But the ONS report does not record deaths by ethnicity and occupation.
“Each and every one of these deaths is an individual tragedy and the families of workers who lost their lives to this terrible disease deserve answers,” commented Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland.
“The UK has suffered terribly from the pandemic and in the cold light of day society must take a hard look at why certain workers were particularly vulnerable to Covid-19,” she added.
“A full public inquiry into these deaths must investigate not only if these workers were failed by a lack of PPE, but also if they were significantly more susceptible to the disease due to the cumulative effects that working long and unsocial hours had on their health,” Holland went on to say.
And like Tan, Holland believes deaths of BAEM workers must be fully understood. “It is absolutely imperative that there is a greater understanding of the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAEM workers and this must be examined in order to ensure that everyone is fully protected,” she added.
In the meantime as Tan says the best way of protecting all workers is by recruiting them into a union.
By Mark Metcalf with addition reporting by UNITElive team