Low-paid frontline workers were bullied and harassed during Covid, equalities watchdog says

EHRC inquiry finds reluctance to raise concerns and fear of victimisation among health and social care staff amid ‘significant pressure and risk’

Credit: Care worker: Mario Arango/Getty Images

Lower-paid health and social care workers in frontline roles experienced bullying, racism, and harassment at work during the Covid-19 pandemic but felt unable to raise concerns, the equality watchdog has said.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) added that ethnic minority workers in the sector in England and Wales were more likely to be employed on zero-hour contracts, which the watchdog said created job insecurity that “caused fear of victimisation… particularly if they were to raise concerns”.

The findings, the result of an inquiry into the experiences of workers in the sector across the UK, commissioned in November 2020, also said the severity of the discrimination faced by ethnic minority workers may have been masked by poor data collection on the part of the agencies responsible for supplying staff including porters, cleaners, security staff and care workers.

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To prevent discrimination passing unnoticed, Baroness Kishwer Falkner, chair of the EHRC, said that the use of robust workforce data was crucial so “organisations know who works for them and what their employees’ experiences are, so they can take action to end bad practice”.

She added that health and social care staff were “among the heroes of the Covid pandemic” and faced “significant pressure and risk in keeping us safe”.

In order to help equality and human rights law to be upheld, Falkner said the EHRC would work with the government, NHS, local authorities, regulators and care providers to “ensure that the working conditions of lower-paid workers in this sector are improved and that their crucial contribution to our health and our economy is recognised”.

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Eryl Besse, the EHRC’s Wales commissioner, said the inquiry heard ethnic minority workers in Wales lacked trust in workplace systems and feared negative repercussions if they raised concerns about work conditions.

She added that some workers experienced barriers in accessing training opportunities, or struggled to find out about basic entitlements such as holiday and sick pay, and while there had been a few recent positive developments – including the publication by the Welsh Government of its Anti-Racist Wales Action Plan – more needed to be done.

Commenting on progress in Scotland, Lesley Sawers, the EHRC’s Scotland commissioner, said there were currently significant reforms under consideration that presented “real opportunities to put our recommendations into action and tackle the inequalities highlighted by our inquiry”.