Racial monitoring urged as policy

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AMID the clamour about the Social Chapter, few seem to have noticed that, in at least one respect, Britain's workers are better protected than counterparts in Europe. With the introduction of a single market providing for free movement of labour, the European Community has yet to issue a directive against racial discrimination that would approximate the comprehensive law in Britain. The EC's Equal Treatment Directive concentrates primarily on sex discrimination.

Racial discrimination at work remains a fact of life in Britain for many members of ethnic minorities, despite the domestic legislation. According to the Commission for Racial Equality, there were 926 applications to the industrial tribunal in respect of alleged employment-related discrimination in 1990-91. Of these, 308 cases were heard, the rest were settled or withdrawn: 47 were successful.

The commission points out that very few people actually take legal action over racial discrimination.

While noting that other European countries can impose sanctions for discrimination, the commission expressed concern over the strength of any future EC legislation, which would have primacy over domestic laws. 'There is a real danger that one day a process of harmonisation of laws might lead not to an improvement in protection from racial discrimination across Europe, but to a reduction, as it were, to the lowest common denominator,' it said in its second review of the 1976 Race Relations Act.

It favours the introduction of compulsory ethnic monitoring. Rodney Waldeck, head of one of the commission's employment divisions, said: 'There are many advantages for employers . . . By looking at employment problems through the prism of race, other problems often will come to light which can then be remedied.'

Under the Race Relations Act, it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of colour, race, nationality or ethnic background. The legislation covers direct and indirect discrimination, and there are exemptions for employment connected with specific ethnic groups.

Claims may be submitted by any employee, regardless of length of service, to the industrial tribunal - usually within three months of the alleged discrimination. The tribunal can make awards of up to pounds 11,000, although compensation is usually much less. Legal aid is not available.

Evidence is often difficult to produce, so the commission advises those bringing claims to make detailed notes of conversations, keep copies of letters and documents, and to keep in touch with possible witnesses.