"I couldn’t pay my bills in full and started having to borrow"
The disproportionate effect of the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown on Asian employees is very high.
The UK’s BAME groups are not only likely to have been negatively impacted by the furlough scheme, they are also more likely to have lost their jobs in lockdown.
Millions of people across the country have been put on furlough by their employers due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This essentially means that if your employer has less or no work for you, they can get a grant to help them continue to pay you.
However, it does mean you will get reduced pay given that the government currently only provide 80% of what your normal pay would be.
This has proven difficult for many people who were already struggling to pay bills, rent and food with 100% pay, nevermind 80%.
As the world’s economy plunges into an unprecedented decline, it is time to ask ourselves how the tumbling economic impact of Covid-19 varies across Asian minority groups?
Insecure Job Contracts
Emerging evidence indicates that there are wide ethnic disparities in Covid-19 mortality rates in many western countries, including the UK.
This has a direct correlation to the racial and structural inequalities that plague the country. BAME communities are at a higher risk of death from Covid-19 than their white counterparts. This is partially due to their job types.
Many manual labour jobs are held by Asian citizens and/or migrants. Many of these job roles have remained open during the lockdown as they are considered ‘essential businesses’.
This means that Asians are coming into contact with thousands of customers each day, increasing the risk of contracting the virus.
In June 2020, MP Marsha de Cordova tweeted a call for action to her followers after reading the Public Health England report. She wrote:
“Those in the poorest households and people of colour are disproportionately impacted. But when it comes to the question of how we reduce these disparities, it is notably silent”.
Those in the poorest households and people of colour are disproportionately impacted.
But when it comes to the question of how we reduce these disparities, it is notably silent. It presents no recommendations. Having the information is a start – but now is the time for action.
— I Can’t Breathe…Marsha de Cordova MP (@MarshadeCordova) June 2, 2020
The report presented no recommendations on how to action this problem. The Government have waited far too long to mitigate the risks faced by Asian employees and the furlough scheme is just not survivable for many.
Many Asian migrants who were employed on insecure contracts had even moved from furlough to joblessness.
Sonu, a former employee at Debenhams of Indian heritage, lost her job at Debenhams during the first lockdown.
A week before the initial lockdown in 2020, she was called into her manager’s office and was told that they had to let her go.
The company did not offer her furlough at all. Instead, they said they were trying to save money and the way they could do that was cutting all staff who were on temporary contracts.
As this was within her first 3 months at the job, she was not yet on the permanent contract.
This caused complete devastation as she had no income to fall back on. She explained:
“I lost all sense of purpose. I had no income and no support from the company or the government. If my grandma didn’t let me stay with her, I would have been made homeless by now.
“They could have put me on furlough but chose not to which meant I couldn’t pay my rent.”
Against a backdrop of mounting concern over job losses, a survey said the post-furloughing fall into unemployment had been most common among workers from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.
This meant 22% of BAME workers had fallen out of work due to zero hour or temporary contacts.
Black and Asian employees are 40% less likely to benefit from employee protection that white employees.
According to a study by Yang Hu, a lecturer at Lancaster University, white employees were 5.7 times more likely to experience furlough than job loss.
It is questioned why this is the case. Could it be because white professionals have more advantages and opportunities in getting higher-skilled positions which come with better job security?
There is no doubt that the pandemic has placed an economic strain on millions of people across the UK.
Kathleen Henehan, a research and policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said:
“The first eight months of the Covid crisis have been marked by an almighty economic shock and unprecedented support that has cushioned the impact in terms of people’s livelihoods.”
DESIblitz has spoken to Asian employees to better understand what being placed on furlough meant for them.
Alisha Dhanda, a Recruitment and Booking Consultant based in London, says that she was stuck abroad for 9 weeks so wasn’t automatically enrolled onto the furlough scheme:
“During this time, I was still not getting full payment which really affected me and still has today as I had little source of income.
“I am working remotely with the company now, but my hours are reduced. It has caused a huge impact on many of us.”
The stress that this can cause is immense. Alisha goes on to say that:
“Not receiving a full income was difficult because between months February 2020 to August 2020 caused financial difficulty.
“Many people were being made redundant – my company advised me that the best option would be to go on furlough.”
However, not being offered this until June of 2020 meant that Alisha was out of pocket for several months.
Sayeed Khan, a Financial Advisor based in Birmingham, was also placed on furlough by his employers during the first and second lockdown.
For him, this was good as it meant that the high-risk people he lived with were less at risk from contracting the virus.
However, it also caused a great deal of stress:
“For many, 80% of pay seems pretty good. But for me, it was unbelievably stressful.
“I couldn’t pay my bills in full and started having to borrow from friends and family. Furlough has made me get into a lot of debt.”
A Focus on Mental Health
When talk of a first lockdown came into fruition, many employees were excited about the prospect of some time off from their busy schedules.
Unfortunately, this was short-lived as then came a second and third lockdown causing people to struggle with their mental health.
Not being able to see friends or family has negatively impacted almost everyone. Workplaces, HR departments and the NHS saw a rise in numbers for people seeking support.
Alisha says that her workplace made her feel quite secure and comfortable:
“They set the whole organisation up to work remotely and provided us with all the facilities required.
“When the first UK lockdown slowly began to ease, I travelled to the office for my training where the correct Covid-19 precautions were in place i.e. hand sanitisers, 2 metre distancing and more.”
She also mentions the regular communication between herself and managers helped to calm her stresses:
“I had a new manager during this time so I had two managers who would message me weekly to keep me updated on the situation at work.
“They also understood employees who had childcare and would try their best without fail to get everyone back into work.”
“They even promoted some employees so they would have better job security.”
For Alisha, being on furlough had a positive impact on her in many ways as well – despite being financially burdened:
“I was able to focus on my mental health a lot more – we don’t always get the time in our busy lives to spend with our loves ones or even focus on our mental health and sanity.”
Nori* a Customer Advisor based in Bedford was also placed on furlough by her employer.
They allowed Nori to express any personal concerns she had and then gave her the option of being furloughed or remaining at work given that it was still open throughout the pandemic.
Whilst at work the retail establishment introduced social distancing, regular cleaning and mandatory face-covering within the store, to ensure the safety of colleagues and the public which was reassuring to her.
She then made the decision to go on furlough based on concern for her family:
“I made the decision to be furloughed based on my concern for family members whom I live with, who are considered clinically extremely vulnerable and at high risk if they came into contact with Covid.
“I received full pay which was a great help as I was able to support my family.”
This was a positive impact that furlough had on Nori. She didn’t have to worry as much because she received full pay which eased the financial burden – and she wasn’t putting her family at risk by serving customers each day.
When asked if she found anything particularly difficult about being on furlough, she told DESIblitz:
“It was difficult at first to adjust to a new routine as most of lockdown was spent at home, which I am not used to doing for a long period of time.
“I was also looking after elderly family members, which did become stressful at times.
“Additionally, I did notice an increase in my anxiety, as I was constantly conscious about protecting myself and my family from becoming unwell.”
Her place of work did communicate with her several times but didn’t provide any extra support, more so because she didn’t feel it necessary.
Nori was happy with her company offering her furlough and maintaining communication during the first lockdown, considering the uncertainty around the time. However, since then, this hasn’t remained the case.
During the current lockdown, her company have not given the option to be furloughed which she believes she should have considering she lives with extremely vulnerable family members.
Overall having a regular income has eased her worries.
Asian employees, like many other people, have had to balance childcare with work during this pandemic.
With some schools open and other closed, it is a juggling act of trying to find childcare that is safe and accessible whilst balancing work schedules.
The government’s furlough scheme has enabled more parents to stay at home which means they can look after their children whilst they are away from school.
Kuljit, a Configuration Analyst, praises her company for taking immediate action last year:
“They were quick in supplying hand sanitiser, devised a safe one-way system and issued regular communications to all staff. There was lots of support regarding mental well-being.”
Kuljit, like other colleagues, opted to go on furlough due to having a child. She began working from home, but it was difficult to juggle this with looking after a 2 ½ year old.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time off, mainly as I did not have to worry about work whilst looking after my child.
“When we were allowed to visit another household, I was able to visit my family members any day of the week which was a plus point.”
Her company were good at providing extra support and did so by sending out regular communications.
In relation to childcare, they offered flexible working hours or reduced hours.
“They have been very understanding and supportive of staff with young children.”
During her furlough, Kuljit was given the option to attend any team meetings if she wanted to, but there was no pressure to do so.
Unfortunately, not all companies are as understanding or empathetic to their employees with children.
Sara, a Marketing Assistant, has two children under 5 and has struggled to cope during each lockdown:
“My husband is a keyworker so is at work six days a week. I have to work from home as my company didn’t offer me furlough.
“It’s difficult preparing the kids’ meals, doing their homework and keeping them entertained – all the while having a full-time job”.
The lack of support from this company is shocking but not abnormal. These disparities are still prevalent now.
While some Asian employees have thrived throughout the furlough scheme, offering them quality time with families, others have struggled.
The exceptional economic adversity faced by BAME employees calls for urgent action to protect and support different groups.