Women and Equalities Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry

Unequal impact: Coronavirus (Covid 19) and impact on people

with protected characteristics

Submission by Women of Colour Global Women’s Strike*

The coronavirus throws a harsh light on what communities of colour have been suffering and campaigning about for decades, holding a mirror up to stark and widespread inequalities.  It is clear that racism, sexism, discrimination and social deprivation are life and death issues. 

For women of colour, the coronavirus divide means our families are among the hardest hit. Those in the poorest areas, where we often live, are dying at twice the rate of those in the richest areas.

BME people are over-represented among coronavirus deaths by as much as 27%.[i] BME patients account for 34% of the patients admitted to UK intensive care units with COVID,  but are only 17 per cent of the UK population. BME households are hit twice as hard financially by the lockdown. Almost a third reported losing income due to this crisis.

After delaying for weeks, Boris Johnson called for “herd immunity”, saying we should “expect” loved ones to die in the outbreak.  It amounts to a cull of the most vulnerable people. No plans were in place to protect care homes, and they continued to ignore them when public outcry forced the government to focus on resources for the NHS.  As a result, many have died, and are still dying.

There is outrage that MPs handed themselves an additional £10,000  to work at home during the pandemic, while low-waged and-unwaged carers, never more needed and who our lives depend on,  are overworked, without living wages, or protection.


*Women of Colour Global Women’s Strike: a collective of women from Africa, India, Latin America, Europe, and indigenous lands, campaigning for women’s unwaged work in the home, the community, on the land and in justice movements to be recognized and paid for.  Our network includes immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers; health and care workers, nurses trained in Africa and the Caribbean, but prevented from working because of their immigration status, breastfeeding advocates, key workers on low wages and zero hours contracts. We campaigned against racist targeting of African people during the Aids outbreak in the 90’s, and against health care cuts.

Our aims include: ending women’s poverty, overwork and vulnerability to violence, which undermine our health; making visible our social/economic contributions; pressing for resources squandered on war and military spending to go instead to women and children and our communities.

[i] Brent and Newham, with high BME populations and where some of our members live, have the highest COVID death rates in England and Wales. Liverpool, the UK’s oldest Black community, has the highest Covid-19 death rate outside London.  The local authority there has suffered the biggest cuts to its budget since 2010.

  1. Black and Immigrant women: low paid, undervalued and unprotected

“It is women, especially low-paid, BAME and migrant women currently putting their lives on the line to deliver vital care to the British public having previously been told they are ‘low-skilled’ or undeserving of livable wages or stable contracts. . . . Three million people are in high coronavirus exposure jobs in the UK, 77% of those are women. Of these workers, 1,060,400 are earning ‘poverty wages’, 98% are women.[i]

  • About one quarter of home care workers are BME women. Migrant women are 16% of the social care workforces.
  • The average social care wage is £8.10, well below the living wage.  Many social care workers are on zero hours contracts without entitlements to sick pay or paid leave.
  • The government’s new immigration policy defines those earning under £25,000 as low-skilled and unwanted. This would exclude many social care workers. Yet COVID-19 has exposed how essential key workers are to keeping society going. 
  • Despite their work on the frontline of the NHS, migrant healthcare workers have to pay a surcharge to use the NHS themselves. The NHS surcharge must be abolished
  • Migrant workers, including those working in the NHS, have to pay extortionate visa fees for themselves and their families. The government is set to increase the fee later this year. These visa fees must be abolished.
  • The condition attached to these visas is No Recourse to Public Funds, so people cannot claim universal credit, sick pay, or other state benefits if they are unable to work. This visa condition must be abolished.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) — essential to frontline workers — has been scarce from the outset, and it put women’s lives at risk because it was designed to fit men despite 75% of NHS workers being women.

[i] https://wbg.org.uk/blog/it-is-women-especially-low-paid-bame-migrant-women-putting-their-lives-on-the-line-to-deliver-vital-care/

2. How have women and families in our network been affected by Covid 19 and government responses to it?

Our network includes women doing full-time or part-time social care work, some on zero hours contracts. In addition, like other women, we are doing the unwaged caring work at home and in the community to keep our loved ones alive in this pandemic. 

3. Demands:

  • Waged carers to get a pay rise to at the very minimum the level of the real living wage.
  • Increase benefits — Carer’s Allowance and Child Benefit for a start.
  • Universal Credit — immediately abolish the five-week wait which is causing wide-spread hardship; abolish the two-child limit and the benefit cap.
  • Introduce a Care Income for all those who do caring work. Women of Colour GWS with the Global Women’s Strike and the Green New Deal for Europe have launched a campaign to urge governments everywhere to provide a Care Income. This could help transform society by putting resources in the hands of those doing the care work that is essential for human survival. It is an anti-racist measure because BME women are some of the most overworked and underpaid. 

4. Women asylum seekers and immigrants facing discrimination and destitution

Women in our network have been speaking out to highlight the particular impact on them, their families and on all undocumented migrants.  Women are disadvantaged because generally they are poorer, have less access to help with language so may not speak or understand written English, have caring responsibilities for others and are more vulnerable to rape and other sexual violence.

Members of the All African Women’s Group, a group of women asylum seekers and refugees, based with us at the Crossroads Women’s Centre, commented:

  • “The COVID pandemic makes our already fragile lives even harsher.  There’s no space to have quiet or private time where I live.  It’s mental torture and brings back memories of being detained.  I’m trapped with someone who knows he can do what he likes.  I tread on eggshells every day . . .  I speak secretly with women supporters. I fear being reported to the Home Office. With no money of my own I’m at the mercy of my “host”.  After a big fight with the Home Office, I just got some small financial help from NASS [National Asylum Support System].
  • We’ve been in quarantine for years, separated off from society because of extreme poverty. We want to do the right thing and self-isolate but we can’t without money and housing. Everyone, including asylum seekers, has the right to defend themselves against this killing virus.  I know what it is like to be locked up in detention and how terrible it must be with this virus especially now that some women are sick”.

5. Demands for during and post COVID:

  • Close Detention Centres. Many women asylum seekers have suffered rape and other torture, and have serious underlying physical health conditions which put them at particular risk of infection.  Incarceration in overcrowded facilities with communal toilets and cells, and being unable to self-isolate, with often inadequate sanitary facilities and health care, is deadly.  In Spain pressure from 900 community organisations led to all detainees being released.
  • An Amnesty for Undocumented People. People without immigration status in the UK are forced underground, unable to access healthcare, housing, food and other essentials. This puts their health and the health of their family and the community at risk. Other countries have granted an amnesty, giving people status at least for the period of this crisis, on public health and safety grounds. Italy just granted residency and the right to work to 600,000 undocumented people and Portugal gave citizenship to all migrants.
  • Allow asylum claims to be made online. Women in our network unable to claim asylum before the lockdown are being told to travel to the Home Office to register their claim.  Vulnerable women are put in a position of risking their health and breaking isolation orders, because without a current claim, women have no chance of getting even the miserly level of asylum support, just £37.50 per week.
  • Equal access to healthcare, housing and food without fear of deportation.
  • Abolish the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ policy which leave women homeless and destitute and/or forces them to live with violent abusers or enter sex work and exploitative domestic situations in order to survive. It denies migrant workers access for healthcare, benefits and other resources.

6. Institutional racism exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic

Just before the pandemic took hold, a review of Windrush scandal was published, detailing the brutal treatment of Commonwealth citizens, people invited to Britain, many who helped build the NHS and other key services.  Under the hostile immigration environment, people were forced to prove they were citizens; threatened with detention, losing their jobs, homes, access to health care, and some lost their lives. Despite the cruelty inflicted, the report shied away from naming the Home Office as institutionally racist, as the evidence clearly showed.  Many of the victims are elderly and still waiting for compensation. Many may not have applied fearing further Home Office reprisals.

People of colour and other immigrants have also borne the brunt of austerity cuts for over a decade, and most of the cuts have fallen on women. 

This was the terrain before the pandemic, and injustice has been exacerbated and exposed by it. Black nurses are being automatically sent to COVID-19 wards and feeling targeted, especially if they are agency staff.  One nurse spoke of asking to come off the COVID-19 ward due to exhaustion, but was not allowed while white counterparts were. The NHS is now discussing taking BME staff away from the most dangerous COVID-19 zones, but this must be in consultation with front line staff, not used for further discrimination.

I came to train as a nurse and work for the NHS, there was plenty racism from patients saying “don’t touch me”, from ward sisters, staff, and white trainees. But I had strong mind, and stood up to them. I got called up and reprimanded, and sometimes went home in tears but I wanted to be a nurse and wouldn’t let them take that from me. It got easier after I qualified – but there will always be racism, unless we end it.   My precious son died because of the racist, hostile environment, He came to join me when he was eight and lived here all his life, but the Home Office chased him for 18 months to show his papers.  He died from the stress but the coroner said it was heart disease. Two years later, our family is still waiting for compensation.

The government must take action on these demands, many of which are in the media as never before, and echoed across almost every section of society.  Failure to act now would make them responsible for thousands more deaths.

Women of Colour Global Women’s Strike: a collective of women from Africa, India, Latin America, Europe, and indigenous lands, campaigning for women’s unwaged work in the home, the community, on the land and in justice movements to be recognized and paid for.  Our network includes immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers; health and care workers, nurses trained in Africa and the Caribbean, but prevented from working because of their immigration status, breastfeeding advocates, key workers on low wages and zero hours contracts. We campaigned against racist targeting of African people during the Aids outbreak in the 90’s, and against health care cuts.

Our aims include: ending women’s poverty, overwork and vulnerability to violence, which undermine our health; making visible our social/economic contributions; pressing for resources squandered on war and military spending to go instead to women and children and our communities.

[1] Brent and Newham, with high BME populations and where some of our members live, have the highest COVID death rates in England and Wales. Liverpool, the UK’s oldest Black community, has the highest Covid-19 death rate outside London.  The local authority there has suffered the biggest cuts to its budget since 2010. [1] https://wbg.org.uk/blog/it-is-women-especially-low-paid-bame-migrant-women-putting-their-lives-on-the-line-to-deliver-vital-care/