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The history of tackling race discrimination in the workplace

Published 17 September 2018

Some things will never change and it is never going to be easy for an employer to tackle racism in the workplace.

All employers should take a zero-tolerance approach to such deplorable behaviour. In recent years the law to help employers do so has certainly been made a lot easier to understand and follow.

Older readers may recall, and even still refer to, the Race Relations Act 1976 (1) when referring to legislation to combat racism in the workplace.

The Act was established by Parliament more than 40 years ago. It was designed to prevent discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, nationality and, ethnic and national origin. It covered all aspects of life, including employment.

The introduction of the Race Relations Act also saw the creation of the Commission for Racial Equality. It was a non-departmental public body created to address racial discrimination and promote racial equality. The functions of the CRE were taken over by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2) in 2007.

Ethnic minorities faced widespread racism in day-to-day life prior to the introduction of the Race Relations Act. Commonwealth citizens and the Windrush generation were not only subjected to discrimination in employment, but confronted by signs saying ‘no blacks or Irish’ when seeking accommodation and could also be refused entry to a restaurant or pub simply because of the colour of their skin.

The first race relation laws came into force in the 1965 Race Relations Act, which was a limited piece of legislation.  The Guardian reported at that time (Saturday, April 10, 1965) how the legislation was welcomed by the Society of Labour Lawyers who felt ordinary criminal law was not best way to tackle discrimination in many parts of life including employment (3).

It was not until the implementation of the Race Relations Act, just over 10 years later, that things really started to change. It made both direct and indirect discrimination an offence and it gave those affected by discrimination the right to redress through employment tribunals and the courts.

The Equality Act 2010 (4) replaced previous anti-discrimination laws, including the Race Relations Act, with a single Act which legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society

It is a change which is widely seen as making the law much easier to comprehend and reinforcing protection in some situations.

Despite this it appears that racism remains an issue for concern in modern day workplaces. A study by the Trade Union Congress highlighted the scale of the problem (5).

The research found that more than a third of black or minority ethnic workers (BME) have been subject to racism at work. This included bullying, abuse, or being singled out for unfair treatment.

Almost a fifth of the 1,000 workers quizzed said they had been denied training or promotion. Alarmingly 43 per cent of the employees did not feel able to report their experience of discrimination to their employers and 38 per cent did not report incidents of bullying and harassment.

ACAS list the four main types of race discrimination (6)

Direct discrimination

Breaks down into three different sorts of direct discrimination of treating someone 'less favourably' because of:

·         Their actual race (direct discrimination)

·         Their perceived race (direct discrimination by perception)

·         The race of someone with whom they associate (direct discrimination by association).

Indirect discrimination

Can occur where there is a policy, practice, procedure or workplace rule which applies to all workers, but particularly disadvantages people of a particular race.


When unwanted conduct related to race has the purpose or effect of violating an individual's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.


Unfair treatment of an employee who has made or supported a complaint about race discrimination.

The legislation to tackle racism in all walks of life including employment has come a long way. Employers should ensure that they have robust and fair policies in place to prevent race discrimination and that they should take any such complaints seriously.


1.ukpga_19760074_en.pdf [Internet]. [cited 2018 Sep 11]. Available from:

2.Who we are | Equality and Human Rights Commission [Internet]. [cited 2018 Sep 11]. Available from:

3.Rodrigues J. How the Guardian covered the introduction of the Race Relations Act 50 years ago. The Guardian [Internet]. 2015 Dec 8 [cited 2018 Sep 11]; Available from:

4.What is the Equality Act? | Equality and Human Rights Commission [Internet]. [cited 2018 Sep 11]. Available from:

5.osdjay. Is Racism Real? [Internet]. TUC. 2017 [cited 2018 Sep 11]. Available from:

6.Race discrimination | Acas advice and guidance [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2018 Sep 11]. Available from:

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For free employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 0333 772 0611


A reputation built on success

For employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 


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