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Workplace Islamophobia is not unique to politics, it’s the experience of too many Muslim workers across the UK

4 min read

Nusrat Ghani’s shocking description of Islamophobia in the Conservative party and in government is appalling but not surprising, if you’ve been paying attention.

After all, in 2018, the now prime minister compared Muslim women wearing a burqa to “letterboxes” – something the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady at the time called “dog whistle racism”.

And last year an independent investigation into discrimination against Muslims within the Conservative party revealed that two thirds of all incidents reported in the previous five years were allegations of anti-Muslim racism.

Nusrat Ghani’s experience in the political world is not unique. Baroness Warsi has long called on her party to do better. Islamophobia is not just an issue in the Conservative party, but across the political spectrum.

And our politics reflects the experiences of Muslims at work more widely. What happened to Nusrat Ghani should be unacceptable in every workplace – but sadly too many Muslim workers across the UK have similar stories.

Ministers have missed opportunities to mount a concerted challenge to systemic racism at work and in wider society

Recently I sat in on some focus groups that the TUC ran about racism at work. I was struck over and over by the experiences of Muslim participants, ranging from everyday discrimination to vile abuse, targeted harassment and bullying.

And too often, it was Muslim women bearing the brunt. They told the TUC they experience Islamophobic aggressions every day, whether it be at work or in wider society.

One woman spoke about how she was told that she couldn’t be a role model for pupils at the school she was applying to teach at – because she wore a headscarf. Another said she was paid less as the only Asian on the teamA participant was mocked for “eating curry sandwiches” for lunch.

This double discrimination blights lives – and opportunities.

Ministers have been warned repeatedly about the corrosive effect on Muslim workers – and all Black and minority ethnic workers - of the structural racism of the UK labour market.

We know that Black and minority ethnic women are twice as likely to be on insecure contracts than white men. And there are huge BME pay gaps - Bangladeshi women are paid 23.1 per cent less than white men, and Pakistani women are paid 26.7 per cent less than white men. 

In Wales, where I live, the Welsh government has brought together grassroots organisations and trade unions to develop a race equality action plan. It sets out meaningful actions to make Wales an antiracist society by 2030.

But nothing like this is happening across the UK – despite repeated opportunities for ministers to take action.

In 2016, the women and equalities select committee looked into the vastly different outcomes of Muslim workers. Their report asked ministers to bring in a plan to tackle the inequalities faced by Muslims by 2017. No action resulted.

In 2017, ministers asked Baroness Ruby Macgregor-Smith to look at race in the workplace. Four years later, her recommendations have not been implemented.

And following the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020, ministers asked Tony Sewell to look at race discrimination in the UK. The report of the Commission on Racial Disparities disputed the impact and very existence of institutional racism. And despite all the evidence of lower wages and greater poverty among BME communities, it failed to recommend any meaningful action at all on workplace equality.

Over and over again, ministers have missed opportunities to mount a concerted challenge to systemic racism at work and in wider society.

I hope that Nusrat Ghani’s experience is a wake-up call to ministers – beyond the troubles for their own party. All decent people condemn what happened to her – and believe in equality and respect at work.

So rather than remaining complacent about the UK’s progress towards being an antiracist society, ministers should acknowledge structural and systemic racism in the UK labour market and workplace – and act to end it, for Muslims, and for all Black and minority ethnic workers.


Shavanah Taj is the Wales TUC General Secretary.

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