White line holds back blacks at work

Entire fire brigade watch shut after racism charge
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It was, by any standards, a dramatic move. An entire watch of firefighters was disbanded yesterday over allegations of racism. They had, it was claimed, greeted the arrival of a black senior officer with National Front material at the station.

The development at Eltham fire station, south-east London, has brought into focus a problem which both management and union agree is simmering in the heart of the service.

Nationally, just 1 per cent of brigade employees are from ethnic minorities. In London, the figure is fractionally lower. In the whole of Scotland there is just one black firefighter.

And the vast majority of blacks and Asians who do cross the "white line" report systematic and at times vicious abuse and prejudice. Women too complain of victimisation in the "macho culture" of the service in which they also represent 1 per cent of the workforce.

The issue of racism has been highlighted in the television series about firefighters, London's Burning. The latest incident at Eltham, where seven men of the red watch were implicated, shows the seriousness of the situation in real life, according to concerned union members.

In this racially sensitive area, where the black teenager Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths, a black sub-officer visiting from nearby Peckham saw racist posters, pictures and other materials.

The officer ordered their removal. When he returned 10 minutes later they were still there. A complaint by the sub-officer led to a locker search which revealed a photograph of a black Olympic team with a caption calling them muggers, the words "wogs out" stuck to a locker and National Front logos. An "offensive" photograph of disabled people was also discovered.

Three members of the red watch were suspended and four others were moved to other posts. A spokesman for London Fire Brigade said: "The watch has been disbanded, but the men have all been replaced and the fire cover has not been affected. The brigade will not tolerate racism. Any allegation of misconduct will be investigated fully."

Ken Cameron, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, which represents 90 per cent of employees in the service, has called for chief fire officers and local management authorities of the service to join a campaign to combat racism, as well as sexism, homophobia and bullying. He acknowledged that some of his members "bring their prejudices to work".

The union is holding regular seminars with local authorities and the Home Office on the problems. It has also started a black and other ethnic minorities branch which produces its own newsletter.

FBU national officer Andy Gilchrist said: "There is no point in hiding the fact we have got a problem. We do not like the fact that only 1 per cent of firefighters are from black and ethnic minorities, and we also must fight hard as possible to stop any discrimination against them. We stress repeatedly the principle of fairness. But there are ingrained prejudices we must tackle.

"Some people might say that the reason there are so few firefighters from the ethnic minorities is because it is a physically difficult job. But that is just an excuse. We must get their trust, and show we are against racism."

A Home Office spokeswoman added: "We are an equal opportunities employer and we fully support anything done to counter racism."

Last month, Asian fireman Warren Mann successfully sued Gloucestershire Fire Service after suffering racism. He described routine verbal abuse for three years and being ostracised when he complained.

In another case, a confidential Home Office report described how a black recruit was struck and had his head plunged into a water tower where he almost drowned.