Construction and racism: time to build an equitable industry

Niroshan Pathmajothy
Niroshan Pathmajothy

It’s high time construction tackled the racial prejudice in the industry – and besides the moral case, there are many strong business reasons for doing so, says Niroshan Pathmajothy

“But why are they protesting about racism during a pandemic!?”

That was the disappointing reaction from one construction professional I met at any industry event last month, on hearing about my attendance at a peaceful Black Lives Matters protest. Especially as they had no problem with the packed high streets, beaches, and parks up and down the country.

We are at the intersection of two pandemics: Covid-19 and systemic racism. They are both deadly, and it’s well-documented that they both disproportionately hit black communities most acutely. Perhaps naively, I didn’t expect to have to explain this in my own industry.

But as one of only a very small minority of people of colour work in construction, this is a tug of war with which I am all too familiar. Sadly, throwaway comments like these, and the weary frustration they provoke, should come as no real surprise. Construction is, after all, one of the least diverse industries in the private sector.

Limited career progression

While anecdotes of racism within the industry abound, this reality is also reflected in the data.

A study this year found that 76% of Black and 77% of Asian employees in the construction industry reported limited career progression due to their race or other protected characteristics. And nearly half of the respondents disagreed with the statement that their organisation actively works to develop underrepresented groups, specifically into leadership roles. These are disturbingly high numbers that the industry should be addressing as a matter of urgency.

The study demonstrates that the lip service and tokenistic diversity initiatives that firms have historically been using as a defence will no longer do; they clearly aren’t working. Hiring a handful of individuals from racialised groups without an organisational commitment to inclusivity is nothing but a commitment to bringing them into an unsafe working environment.

This is highlighted in just some of the comments from the aforementioned study’s survey respondents:  

“I have been targeted at one of my old companies with racist ‘banter’ and a constructed campaign to undermine my work and abilities.”

“My manager informed me that he doesn’t like my tone of voice and accent while presenting projects to him.”

It’s time for the construction industry to radically examine and dismantle the ways in which it upholds harmful behaviours and practices. In an industry consisting of predominantly white, male, big ego characters, this will not be an easy process. But neither is it a defence against action.

First steps towards change

A critical first step to achieving some meaningful change is for the industry as a whole to accept its collective responsibility and to acknowledge its shortcomings. Simply put, you can’t address an issue if you refuse to accept it exists. Transparency and public accountability are essential in attracting diverse talent.

Large companies now have to publish their gender pay disparity data. Soon they will have to do the same for ethnicity pay disparity. Why don’t construction firms lead the way and start now?  Diversity surveys should not stand out for their exceptionality but should underpin firms’ understanding of the state of the sector.  

A commitment to taking tangible action centring on lived experience is also necessary: well-meaning words without action ring extremely hollow. Mandatory anti-racism training is swiftly becoming the norm in other fields, so why not our own? Staff of colour must be uplifted and listened to without fear of reprimand. We are happy to pay consultants for advice on our structural designs and apprenticeship targets, why are we so reluctant to pay experienced anti-racism and diversity consultants to improve our workplaces and recruitment practices?

The business case for diversity

Moral case aside, it’s no secret that the construction industry is facing a skills shortage, which Brexit will only further compound. We should be championing the recruitment and retention of talent in all its diversity, not shying away from it. The business case for diverse workplaces is overwhelming, and in the current climate, it is reckless for our industry to keep its head buried in the sand.

We have seen major players in our sector take their first tentative steps towards striving for more equitable workplaces. Skanska has been proactively embedding inclusive recruitment and retention practices. Last year, employees at Mace formed their own Ethnic, Diversity Inclusion Network. These initiatives – organisation-wide and employee-led – have to be normalised if we are to see meaningful representation at a strategic, decision-making level.

Our sector prides itself on innovation and being forward thinking: it’s time we apply our practical, solutions-focused mindsets internally. This is not an issue that will solve itself, it requires sustained, proactive efforts, but the end result will be invaluable.

Niroshan Pathmajothy is an MEP manager for McLaren Construction.

Story for CM? Get in touch via email: [email protected]

Latest articles in Opinion