REPLY TO THE COUNCIL FROM LAMBETH BLACK WORKERS
Reply to the Council
8 August 2018
Subject: Re: Open Letter to All Councillors from Lambeth’s Black Workers
Dear Councillors Brathwaite and Hopkins,
Thank you for your response.
We have shared your response with our trade unions, and UNISON have responded by forwarding us emails sent to Councillor Brathwaite on 1 August, 4 August and 12 October last year, to which they say no responses were received.
We appreciate that you mean well by advising that staff with concerns about racism in the workplace should raise these through the “appropriate formal channels”, however the recent experience of staff is that these channels are blocked.
One of the union officials we have asked for information in order to reply to you has shared with us the following observations;
“Councillor Brathwaite suggests that staff who have been victims of racism make use of the ‘proper formal channels’. As you have rightly outlined staff have indeed used the grievance procedure to raise their complaints of racism. Unsurprisingly these are rejected after a management investigation. For example, last year two groups of staff (Welfare, Employment and Skills – WES and a group of Black women in Finance), made collective complaints of racism. Both rejected.
Interestingly in the latter case the complaint of sexism was upheld. The staff affected expressed their concern that the Council was willing to accept responsibility for sexism but rejected racism. When this is considered alongside the other issues you have raised in your email – the employer’s refusal to allow BME staff start an online petition, to have a deputation, the outright rejection in N&G that they have a two tier system for permitting flexible working and opportunities to hot desk and so on – it is true to say that broadly BME staff feel that the employer is at best unwilling to accept their experience of racism, and at worst that it is being condoned.”
Even if the “appropriate formal channels” worked, and specific instances of overt discrimination could therefore be dealt with fairly, this is only one part of the problem. Institutional racism operates in a much more insidious, and often less immediately obvious, way to perpetuate racial disadvantage in the workplace.
White job applicants are more successful than Black job applicants. White staff tend to progress more readily than Black staff. White staff seem to have fewer problems with discretionary management decisions than Black staff.
A serious attempt to address and uproot institutional racism must start with an acceptance of the reality of the problem and a willingness to confront it. In recent months the Council seems to be moving away from even this starting point.
In April last year the former Director of Human Resources and Transformation (Jonathan Evans) put a paper to the Joint Strategy Forum (the regular meeting between Members and the trade unions which has not met now for several months).
That report acknowledged that the (former) Chief Executive and the Trades Unions had “jointly recognised the issue of under representation of BAME employees in the senior management of the Council” and went on to state that “work has taken place to examine the underlying causes and to begin developing an action plan to remedy this.”
The report also acknowledged that the Trades Unions had “raised wider issues and concerns around racial inequality which also require work to gain a deeper understanding and to develop the actions necessary to manage them” and stated that “This work will be included in the plan.”
The report indicated that management were “proposing to seek a third party expert who will act as a “critical friend” and validator of the work as it goes forward”. (This still doesn’t seem to have happened yet sixteen months later).
This report followed on from a survey which UNISON had undertaken of its Black members, the findings of which had been drawn to the attention of the Leader and the then Chief Executive in March of last year. From what the Council was saying to the trade unions in April last year it at least appeared (from what was being said) that the political and managerial leadership were prepared to take the problem of institutional racism at work seriously.
Black workers who have been in Lambeth for any length of time know that the problem of institutional racism in our Council is hardly new. Twenty years ago the Council commissioned research which found that managers admitted that the ethnicity of an employee was an important factor in deciding whether or not to take formal action against them, and also found that white managers systematically rated white subordinates as better performing than Black and ethnic minority subordinates (providing evidence of how white privilege is created and reproduced by white prejudice).
Fifteen years ago, that research report was cited in the report of the Council’s Race Scrutiny Commission, many of the recommendations of which are still relevant today (and some of which are more advanced than the proposals now being made in terms of understanding and tackling racism in the workplace). The Council’s response to the Race Scrutiny Commission in November 2003 noted that “Lambeth Council has acknowledged that it is institutionally racist”, an observation which remains relevant to this day.
However, this honest acknowledgment of institutional racism fifteen years ago, reflected up to last year in a willingness to (at least seem to) be prepared to consider serious action to tackle institutional racism is now quite absent from the managerial leadership of Lambeth Council.
The concerns of Black workers are being dismissed and disregarded, whether they are raised through the “appropriate formal channels” – or through other channels, such as the recent attempt to initiate a petition to the Council (as permitted by the Constitution) on its own website which was obstructed on the grounds that the unions should still be talking to (predominantly white) senior managers (even though they weren’t listening).
In these circumstances we would be happy to meet with you to discuss our concerns but – because the Council’s Code of Conduct makes it a disciplinary offence for staff to approach Council Members directly – we will have to do this through our trade unions.
We will therefore ask our trade unions to reply to you to set up a meeting between Councillors and Black trade union members with whom we hope you will want to work to address the continuing scourge of institutional racism in the Council.
Lambeth Black Workers