Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne argue that an incoming Labour government should make class discrimination a 'protected characteristic' in law.
At the 2019 TUC Congress Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Labour minister Laura Pidcock both spoke about establishing a new workers’ protection agency enforcing individual and collective employment rights. At the same conference, TUC head Frances O’Grady called for outlawing discrimination against working-class people at work, for example in the form of pay gaps and unpaid internships.
This is a welcome move. The gentrification of the Labour party under Tony Blair witnessed an increase in middle-class people voting for and joining Labour, and a reduction in the influence of the working class. With its talk of social exclusion, the Blair government removed the language of discrimination. We need to once again talk about the ways in which the working class are discriminated against, and the impact that has in all areas of their lives.
But for this to work in any meaningful way we need to couch this discussion within the framework of class struggle and not simply employment practices. Not all working-class people are in work and the denigration, policing and depoliticization of working-class people takes place across multiple sites – education, the media, health, housing, popular culture and politics. We need to recognize class as heterogeneous and multifaceted, but at the same time not lose sight of the homogeneity of oppression and exploitation that constitutes the material reality of working-class life.
The pronouncements by the Labour Party and the TUC offer some hope in a political context where class has become peripheral, and where the possession of material wealth and various social and cultural advantages are rarely considered to be part of the conversation.
Routine class-based discrimination in the professions
It is not widely known that in the last days of the last Labour government, the 2010 Equality Act was passed with a section which required public authorities to have ‘due regard’ to the desirability of exercising their functions in a way which reduces the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage.
Unsurprisingly, the incoming Conservative government declined to bring this section into effect. Had it done so, it could have been a lever with which to combat local council housing policies, or perhaps the DWP’s barbarism. But an incoming Labour government should be bolder than just bringing this into effect. It could also add socio-economic status to the list of protected characteristics to give real teeth to the fight against class discrimination.
The charity Just Fair has been working to promote economic and social rights through existing and new legal protections. Their policy director Koldo Casla points out that:
Unlike the UK, at least 20 other European countries provide legal protection against discrimination on grounds related to socio-economic status. In the light of most advanced international human rights standards and best practice from other countries, a future legal review could be the opportunity to recognise socio-economic status as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act.
To return to the question of employment, working-class people are routinely discriminated against in the professions. The professions are dominated by the middle class and are saturated with class prejudices, often carried by people who think of themselves as ‘progressives’. The job interview is one of the key points at which access to the professions is controlled by the gatekeepers. Sociologists have shown how a form of ‘cultural matching’ raises barriers for working-class candidates in job interviews. Middle-class gatekeepers feel, consciously or otherwise, more comfortable with those who come from similar backgrounds.
As the sociologist Lauren A. Rivera notes, ‘shared tastes, experiences, leisure pursuits and self-presentation styles’ between interviewers and interviewees function subtly to sort out who ‘fits’ and who does not along class lines. ‘Hiring is a powerful way in which employers shape labour market outcomes’ argues Rivera, and the job interview is the crucial gatekeeping process that facilitates ‘career opportunities for some groups, while blocking entry for others.’
Making class a protected characteristic could provide individuals and trade unions with powerful levers with which to help make professional institutions more representative – although of course, as with gender and race, legal protections do not automatically produce the desired outcomes. But it would provide organisations across the board with the motivation to collect data and implement training and recruitment practices that acknowledge the reality of class discrimination. And it would also provide working-class people with the power to challenge class discrimination when it happens.
The class discrimination against working-class access to the professions is an important issue because these professions are so influential on a societal level. The people who work in these professions are the policy makers, creating change and making decisions that affect people’s lives, but without representative input by the types of people often most effected by their decision-making.
The media are one of the most influential professions because they feed into the others. Their stereotypes of working-class lives have real effects as they inform the thinking of the policy makers and set the tone for what is acceptable or unacceptable. For example, had the media done their job and properly investigated the fact that the DWP has blood on its hands, the appalling treatment of welfare claimants since 2010 might have been more difficult. We note that the middle class take to the streets in their thousands over Brexit, but where are they over the DWP’s assault on the poor? The media play a key part in stirring people to action over some things but not others.
Class-based discrimination in the creative and cultural industries
Our recent documentary film The Acting Class showed how economic resources and various other disadvantages, ranging from geographical location outside the South-East, educational background, cultural knowledge and above all social networks, gradually and over time filters out would-be working-class acting talent from the profession. This is not only a matter of social justice for the individual involved, as with other professions, it has a wider societal impact. In this case, the stories we tell ourselves as a society are likely shaped by the class background of the acting talent that is available.
Across the creative industries, the problem of unpaid internships that Frances O’Grady highlighted in her TUC speech, are rife. Such practices give the economically advantaged – typically via their parents – the chance to gain crucial work experience in for example, the film and television industries – and build social networks, that working-class talent cannot access because they are working instead as a barista to pay the rent. A recent report by sociologists called Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries, noted that according to data from the Office for National Statistics, only 12.6% of workers in publishing come from working- class origins, only 12.4% in film, television and radio and only 18.2% in music, performing and visual arts. Yet those who are most successful within these industries, who are overwhelmingly middle-class and white, tend to believe that this situation reflects hard work and talent – in other words, a meritocracy. That is another reason why legislation is needed: to force a change in mindset which is at the moment broadly and self-servingly content with the status quo..
Within the neoliberal public sphere, working-class people are constantly denigrated, ridiculed and their lives examined through a middle-class optic, while working-class values and attitudes are delegitimized. This reinforces class divisions and in the process constructs middle-class mores as desirable characteristics we should all strive to emulate, while at the same time keeping neoliberalism and the global economic system safe from the demands of a potentially radical working-class project.
It’s time for the Labour and trade union movement to demand legal protection against class-based discrimination, which is perpetuating an unequal and unfair society.