March 21 is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The date was selected by the United Nations to honour the 69 people who were killed by police at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid in Sharpeville, South Africa in 1960. In South Africa, March 21 is a public holiday, "Human Rights Day," to commemorate the lives that have been lost in the fight for democracy and human rights.
This year's theme is "Challenges and Achievements of the Durban Declaration – 15 years after." The United Nation's Durban Declaration contains a broad range of measures to fight racism, with specific recommendations to combat discrimination against persons of African and Asian descent, Indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and other particularly marginalized groups. Rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are also identified as key areas that require urgent action.
"The ugly, racist campaigning that took place during last October's federal election and in the Republican primary contest is a stark wake-up call us all," says Stephanie Smith, BCGEU President. "We need to have open discussions about racism and we need to educate and support each other as we confront racism in our workplaces and communities. Diversity is our strength and by confronting racism, we ensure that everyone can participate freely and equally in our society."
Like our province, the BCGEU is a diverse union. According to our recent equity survey, 30 per cent of our members report non-Caucasian ancestry. Seven per cent identify as having Aboriginal ancestry, which includes First Nations, Métis and/or Inuit ancestry. Thirteen per cent speak languages other than English at home, with Punjabi, Mandarin and Tagalog the top three languages.
Members who speak languages other than English at home are more likely to have lower household incomes (45 per cent in the $40k and under category, versus 19 per cent for English-at-home speakers). These members are also more likely to be working part time or casual positions (50 per cent working part-time or casual, versus 25 per cent for English speakers).
Our members were also asked about bullying and discrimination issues in their workplaces. Of the 41 per cent who had witnessed and/or experienced bullying or discrimination at their worksite, 17 per cent identified racism as the factor, 13 per cent identified ethnicity, 12 per cent language, and 9 per cent country of origin. The BCGEU's education department is in the process of developing an education module on equity, diversity, and inclusion to train activists to address these issues in the workplace.
These numbers give us a small glimpse into some of the challenges workers of colour face within our workplaces and communities. Studies show that workers of colour are more likely to work in low paid or precarious employment. Workers of colour often face racism and discrimination on the job – from being passed over for promotions to being bullied because of their country of origin or accent. While unions can help address economic inequity, we must also address social and political inequity by embracing a commitment to anti-racism in all of our day-to-day union activities.
"March 21st reminds us that, as a union, we must take a leading role on fighting racism, and upholding the basic rights of all people in our society," says Smith. "Join us in making a conscious commitment to confront oppression and racial discrimination, in all of its forms, every day."