England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Kick racism out of healthcare – interview with BAME health workers

Photograph: Barcroft Media/Getty Images

While politicians and scientists scratch their heads asking why so many from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities have died of Covid-19, it is blindingly obvious that racism has played a part.

As Britain went into lockdown, millions carried on the jobs holding society together. Caring for the sick and vulnerable, keeping the nation fed and maintaining public sanitation was an army of essential workers, a large proportion of whom are BAME.

Increased likelihood of exposure, combined with fears of speaking out around PPE and greater chances of living in overcrowded housing have cost thousands of BAME people their lives doing this pandemic.

The Immigration Health Surcharge is an additional barrier between migrant workers and healthcare services. “People on work permits are already expected to pay full taxes and are excluded from certain treatment options” explains Jeniba, an Intensive Care Nurse from India working in Kent. “Patients experience racism from staff in the NHS, for example if they’re not able to communicate in English very well, that may annoy staff or be spoken to rudely”.

“I have lots of experiences of racism from patients, relatives and colleagues” says Amanda, a specialist nurse born in Britain to Windrush Generation parents. “I’m a 40 year old black woman and I have been racially abused at work on multiple occasions throughout my career” “The NHS has a zero tolerance policy on abuse. Does that get followed all the time? I’m not so sure.” says Jeniba.

The same NHS workers who were heralded as heroes and applauded for weeks are also expected to tolerate racist abuse, in a system which overlooks their skills and talents.

“I recently went for a job that I was more than qualified for. They gave it to someone with significantly less experience but was white and middle class.” Amanda asks “I always wonder, am I treated this way because I am black?”.
“You have to do interviews, presentations and essays now for everything. That is harder when you’re black, when you’re being interviewed by managers who have turned a blind eye to patients making racist comments” she explains. As a decade of austerity squeezes resources in public services, NHS workers are pitted against one another, competing for access to dwindling funds for education and training. In the absence of an organised fightback lead by union, health workers are forced into a race to the bottom.

Although the Johnson Government was famously pressured into making a u-turn and scrapping the Immigration Health Surcharge for health and care workers, hundreds of thousands of non European migrants paying taxes are being charged twice to access NHS services as well as extortionate visa fees. As Jeniba says “The cost of visas goes up much quicker than our wages. This is challenging for people in not well paid jobs like staff nurses, especially when you have to pay for an entire family.”

Low pay has dogged NHS workers since its inception. In the last decade the real value of health workers salaries has fallen by around 18%. A collective movement of all NHS workers for wage increases would not only improve the standard of living. In a collective struggle, an injury to one is an injury to all. Building a movement based on solidarity principles, which seeks to empower and embolden working people is the best way to fight for genuine equality and freedom for all people.


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