Powerful anti-racism debate opens UNISON health conference

“We are one team against racism, just as we are one team for patient care”

UNISON’s national health conference opened in Bournemouth today (Monday) with a passionate debate on the continuing fight against racism in the NHS.

The motion ‘Challenging racism in the NHS’, noted that data from the NHS Workforce Race Equalities Standard (WRES) continues to show that higher levels of Black workers are experiencing harassment, bullying and abuse from staff and patients, than their white colleagues.

Black workers also have less access to training and career opportunities than white workers, and are more likely to be disciplined.

As one delegate told the conference: “Racism is rife in the NHS.”

Marking the fact that 2023 is UNISON’s Year of the Black Worker, the delegates discussed the ways in which they can tackle such institutional racism.

Proposing the motion, Peter Oates of Eastern region (pictured below) said: “Challenging racism is front and centre of all our work as activists. We see racism happening in all large employers, and it will continue where it’s not challenged. So we have to keep speaking up.

“It’s everyone’s responsibility to challenge racism, it’s not only on the shoulders of our Black colleagues and Black activists, who live the experience.”

Mr Oates spoke of his region’s anti-racism charter, which has been signed by employers across the region and which, combined with WRES data, empowers activists in their anti-racist work.

Adekunle Akinole from Somerset Health (pictured below) also spoke of the importance for everyone not to turn a blind eye when witnessing racism in their workplaces.

“As a society we need to speak up when we witness these issues. We must know that those who choose to remain silent have only sided with the oppressor. What we remember are not only the words and actions of our enemies, but the silence and inaction of our friends and colleagues.”

One delegate said that people in management roles were a big part of the problem: “When our Black workers are experiencing racism, managers are not seeing it as such – managers who do know what racism means, and don’t care or want to know.”

That’s why, she said, anti-racism training needed to be extended to HR departments and all managers.

Wilma Brown, chair of the health service group executive, told the delegates: “I’m proud that this motion is opening our conference, because fighting for racial equality is an important part of our union.

“If you are Black and working in the NHS you have a tougher time from patients, colleagues and managers. Black workers are a third more likely to suffer harassment from the public, more than 50% more likely to face disciplinary procedures.

“It’s essential we all fight to make their working lives better. We can’t leave it to Black members and Black activists. We are one team against racism, just as we are one team for patient care and one team fighting for the future of the NHS.”

Conference called on the health service group executive (HSGE) to:

  • continue to promote its race for equality campaign across all health branches and encourage all regional health committees to monitor and evaluate branch work;
  • promote and develop training for health branches geared towards challenging racism in the NHS and tackling racist behaviour in the workplace from patients, the public or staff;
  • work through partnership structures and through direct engagement with Westminster and the devolved governments to influence NHS race equality strategies/plans and push for greater employer accountability where racism disparities persist.
COVID and racism

A further motion outlined how the COVID-19 pandemic exposed racial discrimination in the health service. For example, nearly half of Black NHS staff worked in COVID roles compared to less than a third of all staff.

Voting in favour of that motion, delegates called on the HSGE to  continue to:

  • promote zero tolerance of race discrimination in the NHS and encourage branches to engage with the Race for Equality and One Team campaigns;
  • explore how Black members can gain equal access to career development, training and development opportunities in the NHS;
  • encourage Black members to become active in UNISON regional and national health committees, to ensure the union is reflective of the wider membership in the NHS;
  • explore holding a webinar on challenging racism in the NHS, as part of its Year of the Black Worker in 2023.

Images: Jess Hurd