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Ethiopia crisis: ‘a political mess that makes fathers fight sons’

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Gashaw Koye, a 42-year-old farmer from Amhara dressed in crisp new battle fatigues, met his wife from the neighbouring region of Tigray more than two decades ago. Now, as part of an army mustered by Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, he is preparing to fight Tigray’s regional government.

It is bad enough that Mr Gashaw may have to battle people from his former wife’s northern homeland. Worse, among the soldiers fighting for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, is the couple’s 21-year-old son, Amanuel.

There is little love lost between the regions of Amhara and Tigray, which have long-running land disputes along their shared border. That animosity is now part of a broader national conflict in Ethiopia, a country of 110m people in the Horn of Africa.

“I am going to have to fight the terrorists of the TPLF for the good of Ethiopia,” says Mr Gashaw, referring to the regional party that ran the country for almost three decades but is now considered by some to be a rogue force. “This means I may have to fight my own son.”

Militiamen from Amhara, including Gashaw Koye in the shawl, travel over the regional border to the northern area of Tigray to fight against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front © Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty
Internal conflict has escalated in Ethiopia since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched his ‘law enforcement’ operation, with air strikes and ground troops, against the TPLF in November © Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

He is speaking as dozens of militiamen like him, most brandishing AK-47 rifles, clamber aboard buses and trucks in the city of Gondar, to be transported across the border to Tigray.

“This is what Ethiopia has become,” says Mr Gashaw, stroking his own well-worn rifle. “A big political mess that makes fathers fight sons.”

Crisis and conflict

The political crisis that has set Ethiopian against Ethiopian began in the early hours of November 4 when Mr Abiy launched what he called “a law enforcement” operation — replete with air strikes and ground troops operation — against the TPLF.

The prime minister, an army intelligence officer when the TPLF was running the country, said he was left with no choice after the Northern Command of the federal defence forces based in the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle were attacked “when they were at their most vulnerable, in their pyjamas”.

With the eyes of the world focused on the US election, Ethiopian forces bombed arms depots and other targets in Tigray. The army, together with militias and regional special forces, began a ground attack that Mr Abiy says has already “liberated” large parts of western Tigray from the TPLF.

The conflict has quickly spread. On Saturday, the TPLF slammed rockets into Asmara, capital of Eritrea, a neighbouring country, after accusing the secretive state, which broke away from Ethiopia in the early 1990s, of siding with Mr Abiy. The TPLF has also fired missiles at the airport in Amhara’s capital, Bahir Dar, and at Mr Gashaw’s home town of Gondar.

This is the gravest crisis of Mr Abiy’s tumultuous two-and-a-half-year premiership — one that has already included the award of a Nobel Peace Prize for concluding a peace deal with Eritrea, an assassination attempt and an attempted coup. It threatens to scupper any chance of credible democratic elections next year, which had already been made harder by the arrest of senior opposition figures.

Sahle-Work Zewde, president of Ethiopia, centre left, stands next to Abiy Ahmed, centre right, during an event to honour the national defence forces in Addis Ababa on Tuesday © Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty
Ethiopian military gathered on a road in an area near the border of the Tigray, where there is fear that the war could tip into a humanitarian crisis © Ethiopian News Agency/AP

The fear is that war in Tigray could trigger a humanitarian crisis and widespread ethnic and political violence in a country that, although deeply divided, had been regarded by many as a model of economic progress in Africa.

Some even fear that it could precipitate a Yugoslavia-style break-up of Ethiopia along ethnic lines. The country, with a history of independent states stretching back three millennia, is divided into 10 ethnically defined regions, each with their own distinct language, culture and history.

“There are eerie similarities with Yugoslavia, except Yugoslavia imploded,” says Payton Knopf, senior adviser to the Africa programme at the United States Institute of Peace. “If you do see fragmentation in Ethiopia . . . it won’t just collapse in on itself, but it will become a black hole that draws in all of its neighbours.”

As well as the bombing of Eritrea, there are already signs that the conflict — just two weeks old — is having a regional impact. At least 25,000 refugees have fled into Sudan, a fragile state ill-equipped to cope with a sudden influx of people. If the conflict persists, the UN warns that tens of thousands more could follow.

Leaders of the African Union and other international organisations have called for an immediate ceasefire and dialogue. That doesn’t look likely for now as different sides in the conflict dig into entrenched and seemingly irreconcilable positions. As in most wars, truth — or at least verifiable truth — has been the first casualty, especially on social media where misinformation and hate speech was already rife.

To Mr Abiy’s supporters, the federal government has been pushed to its limit by the TPLF which, ever since losing power three years ago, has, they say, been spoiling for a fight. Mr Abiy accused the TPLF of defying central authority by holding regional elections in September after a national poll — in which he would have faced the electorate — was postponed until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

At least 25,000 refugees have fled into Sudan, a fragile state ill-equipped to cope with a sudden influx of people. If the conflict persists, the UN warns that tens of thousands more could follow © Marwan Ali/AP
People carry Amhara flags and Ethiopian national flags in the streets after a national call to stand in honour of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, in Addis Ababa on Tuesday © Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

The final straw, said Mr Abiy, was reached at 10pm on November 3 when the TPLF attacked the Northern Command stationed in Mekelle. The government reported deaths on both sides. “Such a treasonous act left us no option but to mobilise our law enforcement and defence machinery in an operation intended to end the prevailing lawlessness in the region,” Mr Abiy said.

Mr Abiy has since blamed the TPLF for the killing of hundreds of civilians in a gruesome attack, reported by Amnesty International last week, in which mainly non-Tigrayans were stabbed and hacked to death in the Tigrayan town of Mai Kadra. The massacre fits a pattern, the government said, of TPLF-sponsored violence targeting other ethnic groups.

The TPLF and its supporters dismiss such accounts as propaganda intended to demonise the party and justify war. Ezekiel Gebissa, an ethnic Oromo who advocates strong regional rights and is assistant professor of history at Kettering University in Michigan, says Mr Abiy had been moving army divisions towards Tigray for weeks in preparation of an attack.

Ethiopia conflict map showing clashes in and around Tigray

The fear is that ethnic violence, regardless of who is responsible, could provoke tit-for-tat killings around the country. On Sunday, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said an attack on bus passengers in Benishangul-Gumuz, one of the country’s 10 regions, had left at least 34 people dead. Human Rights Watch warned that rhetoric against the TPLF was taking on a potentially dangerous anti-Tigrayan tinge.

The federal parliament has ratcheted up pressure on Tigray’s government by issuing arrest warrants against dozens of members of the TPLF leadership “for endangering the country’s existence”.

To his critics, blame for the violence now convulsing the country lies with Mr Abiy. The crisis, they say, has been fed by his attempt to amass too much power at the centre in defiance of a federalist constitution that devolves authority to ethnically constituted regions.

“Abiy wants to unify Ethiopia under his medemer philosophy,” says Prof Gebissa, referring to the prime minister’s use of an Amharic word signifying strength through diversity to define his pan-Ethiopian vision. “But medemer simply means assimilation and the flattening of identity into one. Anyone who stands in Abiy’s way is his enemy.”

Ethiopian military have been sent to launch a military operation against the government of the Tigray region © Ethiopian News Agency/AP
Members of the Amhara Special Force return after fighting against the TPLF, whom the president has pledged to bring under control © Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Political cost of economic growth

Ethiopia has been drifting towards conflict for months, if not years. At the heart of this crisis — one of several regional disputes in the country — is the position of the TPLF in national politics. Last year, it refused to join Mr Abiy’s newly established Prosperity party, a non-ethnic organisation based on his medemer doctrine.

Loss of power has come as a shock to the TPLF, which ran the country for 27 years following its lead role in the overthrow of the hated Marxist Derg regime in 1991. Although Tigray’s 5m people make up only 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s population, the TPLF became the dominant force in a national four-party coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

Under Meles Zenawi, a brilliant strategist and prime minister from 1995 until his sudden death in 2012, the EPRDF embarked on an Asian-style development drive modelled loosely on South Korea. Once a byword for famine, the country began to make palpable progress, both in terms of economic growth as well as in health, education and infrastructure.

Though the TPLF was deeply authoritarian, it won many international plaudits. Dani Rodrik, professor of economics at Harvard University, says Meles’ effort to transform Ethiopia from a poverty-stricken peasant economy into a middle-income country scored real successes.

“Back then, if you were to tell the IMF and World Bank that your growth model was going to be ramping up public investment from low single-digits to 20 per cent of gross domestic product and to get [annual] 10 per cent growth, they’d have said you were totally crazy,” says Prof Rodrik of the country’s state-led model. “Yet they did just that for two decades.”

Chart shows real gross domestic product, rebased showing Ethiopia has stormed ahead of its peers for economic growth

Politically, however, the experiment was unsustainable. Domination of the federal government by Tigrayans bred resentment. The government operated a police state in which neighbours spied on neighbours, both to further the government’s development goals — such as use of prescribed fertiliser or participation in vaccination campaigns — as well as to report on unauthorised political activity.

After Meles’s death in 2012, the system began to crumble. Mass street protests erupted in Oromia, which has long felt marginalised from power even though its people make up more than one-third of Ethiopia’s population. Unusually, Oromo protesters joined forces with those from Amhara, the traditional seat of Ethiopian power, which also felt bitterly towards TPLF rule. In the ensuing years, security forces shot thousands of protesters and imprisoned and exiled thousands more.

The government’s solution to the crisis was to appoint a new prime minister. In April 2018, over TPLF objections, it selected Mr Abiy, an Oromo son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother and a fluent speaker of Amharic, Oromo and Tigrinya, the languages of Ethiopia’s three largest ethnic groups. (There are 80 in all.)

The hope was that Mr Abiy’s appointment could ease tensions, particularly in Oromia. At first it appeared to work. Brandishing a liberal-sounding agenda, he released political prisoners, invited back those who had gone into exile and concluded peace with Eritrea. The countries had fought a bitter war between 1998 and 2000.

How Ethiopia’s governance compares with its neighbours

But Mr Abiy also purged Tigrayans from government and the security service and led a crackdown on corruption that members of the TPLF old guard saw as targeted against them. Although he had been part of the old regime, he labelled the era of TPLF control as “27 years of darkness”.

Worku Adamu, a senior member of Mr Abiy’s Prosperity party, says the TPLF is mourning its loss of power: “For 27 years, the TPLF controlled the whole system and the new government captured this power.”

Belete Molla, chairman of the National Movement of Amhara, also regards the TPLF as the villain of the piece. He blames Mr Abiy not for waging war on Tigray, but for failing to do so sooner. “This is what he should have done two years back. The TPLF has always been a mafia group,” says Mr Belete, accusing it of “orchestrating massacres across Ethiopia”.

Debretsion Gebremichael, chair of the TPLF, says of his opponent: ‘Abiy pretended to be a reformer and a democrat, but deep inside he was planning to be a king’ © STR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, right, has been accused by Mr Gebremichael of colluding with Mr Abiy and sending troops to Tigray © Minasse Wondimu/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Debretsion Gebremichael, chairman of the TPLF, denies any such activity, laying the blame for the crisis squarely with Mr Abiy. “He is a dictator, a complete dictator,” he said on a telephone call from Tigray last week after federal forces attacked. “Abiy pretended to be a reformer and a democrat, but deep inside he was planning to be a king.”

Mr Debretsion accuses the prime minister of colluding with Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea’s authoritarian leader, whose troops he said had already infiltrated Tigray. If the fighting continues, Mr Debretsion says, he does not see how Ethiopia can remain intact. “If these people don’t come to their senses, break-up will be a natural consequence of this kind of fighting,” he added.

Military balance

140,000

Active duty troops make up the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) comprising approximately 135,000-137,000 soldiers and 3,000 air force personnel.

Source: CIA

250,000

Troops, made up of a large paramilitary force and a well-drilled local militia, are present in Tigray. 

Source: International Crisis Group

The need for a national identity

Mr Abiy has defended action in Tigray as a restoration of law and order and rejects the description of the conflict as a civil war. More broadly, say his supporters, he is trying to create a unified national identity, in which ethnicity recedes in importance and a new sense of national citizenry takes hold. “National unity is a priority, nation building is a priority,” says Billene Seyoum, Mr Abiy’s spokeswoman.

“Ethnic entrepreneurs [those seeking to manufacture unrest] want to keep dividing this country forever,” says another close aide of the prime minister. “Ethnicity is being used by these people as a political weapon.”

Senior Oromo opposition leaders, including Jawar Mohammed, above, have been arrested for allegedly orchestrating attacks against, Mr Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate © Stringer/AFP/Getty
Oromia Special Forces check a man dressed in a traditional Oromo costume during a festival. Some even fear that the conflict could precipitate a Yugoslavia-style break-up of Ethiopia along ethnic lines © Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Elsewhere in Ethiopia, Mr Abiy faces calls for separation among ethnic groups in the south as well as violence in parts of Oromia. Senior Oromo opposition leaders, including Jawar Mohammed, have been arrested.

For the moment, Mr Abiy is concentrating on Tigray where, he says, the operation can be wrapped up quickly. But most experts fear conflict will drag on as experienced and well-armed TPLF fighters dig in.

“It is not clear that Abiy’s forces have a military advantage going into this war. The TPLF is not a rag-tag band of guerrillas,” says Mr Knopf of the US Institute of Peace. “Even if somehow they are able to hunt down the whole Tigrayan leadership, how are you going to subjugate the Tigrayan population?” he asks. “I don’t see where this is supposed to end.”

Back in Gondar, from where Mr Gashaw set off to fight, Aba Gebremichael, an Orthodox Christian monk, is praying for peace. As militias, special forces, and Ethiopian army troops pack the streets outside his 17th-century stone church, he points his cane at a fresco of the devil on the church’s magnificently painted interior.

“War is an evil thing. It makes brothers fight brothers and fathers fight sons,” says Father Aba, shaking his head at the prospect of bloodshed. “And we have seen too much of that in Ethiopia already.”



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Analysis

Taiwan seizes chance to host foreign reporters kicked out of China

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Taiwan is courting journalists fleeing China, spotting an opportunity to boost its visibility and build international support as concerns mount that Beijing is flirting with the idea of invading the country.

Last year, more than 20 journalists made the journey across the Taiwan Strait from China. Many had published articles critical of human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang and the government’s early handling of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

They came at the invitation of the Taiwanese government, a move that has infuriated China, which claims the island as part of its territory.

Jojje Olsson, a freelance journalist living in Taipei since being denied re-entry to Beijing in 2016, said that Beijing’s reaction to critical reporting carried risks for the regime.

“China is shooting itself in the foot by expelling lots of journalists,” he said. When reporters come to Taiwan, he argued, “they are exposed to views that don’t reflect well on China”.

Steven Butler, the Asian head at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said that “Beijing is surely very unhappy about journalists moving to Taiwan”.

China, he added, was sensitive to the foreign media being in Taiwan, citing a case two years ago involving a prominent newspaper that was warned against setting up a regional headquarters in Taipei. 

Beijing said the newspaper’s offices in the Chinese capital would be forced to close if it went ahead with its expansion plans.

Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review, who was forced to leave China in September after being questioned by state security officials, said Taiwan’s consulate officials in Sydney “made it very clear that we [journalists] were welcome”.

He declined the invitation but many others accepted.

Last year, journalists from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post arrived in Taiwan after being expelled from China, which Beijing said was a response to Washington’s blacklisting of its state media reporters.

They were joined three weeks ago by RTÉ’s Yvonne Murray and her husband John Sudworth of the BBC following threats of legal actions over his reporting on Xinjiang. 

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment from the Financial Times.

Hong Kong had been the city of choice for journalists covering the Chinese state from afar. Western journalists booted out of China after Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 decamped to the British colony, leaving behind reporters from the Soviet bloc.

Veteran BBC correspondent John Sudworth left China late last month after facing an ‘intensifying propaganda campaign’ targeting the broadcaster and him personally © BBC

Seventy years later, Olsson said Taiwan was assuming Hong Kong’s former role. The introduction of China’s sweeping national security law on Hong Kong last year meant that the territory no longer afforded protection from Beijing. 

“There is no other place in the world that follows developments in China as closely as Taiwan,” argued Olsson, adding that finding out what the Chinese Communist party was up to was a matter of existential concern for the Taiwanese.

Taipei’s early detection of the pandemic is a case in point. Taiwanese officials were alerted to the novel coronavirus circulating in Wuhan through close monitoring of Chinese social media and introduced containment measures before any other foreign government. 

Taiwan boasts expertise in China across its government and private sector, and shares a language and timezone. But reporting from across the Taiwan Strait has its limitations. Journalists have experienced difficulties securing interviews and personal stories that present a more nuanced picture of China.

Their jobs have been additionally complicated by the absence of news assistants — China-based journalists and researchers employed by international media — who face more severe legal consequences and lack the privileges of a foreign passport.

Reporters have also been forced to operate without the support of a bureau, as media executives are wary of provoking China by opening offices in Taiwan. Deutsche Welle, the German broadcaster, was the last foreign media outlet to do so in 2018. Tokyo and Seoul are viewed as alternative east Asian headquarters, industry insiders said. 

The size of Taiwan’s economy is another factor that has given foreign outlets pause. Despite being home to some of the world’s most important technology companies, only a handful of news organisations provide consistent coverage of the Taiwanese market, which is often overlooked by foreign investors.

But China’s escalating military posturing towards Taiwan has kept the island in global headlines, as the two sides battle to dominate the international narrative around its contested status.

Beijing has used its economic and political might to entice Taipei’s few remaining diplomatic allies to switch recognition, undermining Taiwan’s sovereignty with promises of investment deals.

But by welcoming foreign journalists, the Taiwanese government has also exposed itself to critical coverage of the marginalisation of its aboriginal communities and migrant workers as well as a sluggish vaccination rollout. Journalists, after all, as one Taiwanese politician joked to the FT, “are hard to control”.



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Defund the police: how a protest slogan triggered a policy debate

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Eleven months ago “Defund the police” was a slogan that appeared on placards at protests; now it is being debated by American city councils.

Polls show only a small portion of Americans support the idea of defunding the police, a flexible phrase that can mean redirecting funds to social services or outright elimination of the department. Yet as lawyers prepare to deliver closing arguments on Monday in the trial of the officer accused of murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis, and in the wake of yet more deaths at the hands of police, what was previously a fringe concept has become part of mainstream US political discussion.

Minneapolis has three proposals to diminish the police department’s power that supporters are attempting to place on the ballot in November. Two would replace the police department with a department of public safety, with the police as one division of it. The third would place the police department under the control of a 13-member civilian commission, with the power to hire the police chief and discipline officers for misconduct.

Austin, Texas cut its police budget in August by 35 per cent, with 5 per cent taking immediate effect. Seattle cut the police budget by 20 per cent in December. City councils have cut police budgets in nearly two dozen other cities, although mostly because the pandemic has battered municipal finances.

“People will look back at this year and say this was a real turning point,” said Alexander Weiss, a consultant who has advised police departments in Chicago and New Orleans, in reference to police accountability.

People march near the Colorado State Capitol to protest the deaths of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo © Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Floyd’s death last May set off protests around the world at the disproportionate number of people of colour killed by police. A key demand for many activists was to abolish police departments entirely, or cut their funding and redirect it to social services. In Minneapolis, nine city council members stood on a stage and pledged to defund the police. When Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered that the words “Black Lives Matter” be painted on a city street blocks from the White House, demonstrators used the same yellow paint to add: “Defund the Police”.

With more people killed by police in the past three weeks, the demands to defund have escalated. Chicago community organiser Rey Wences told non-profit news outlet Democracy Now! that following the killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo last month by a Chicago police officer: “What we’re asking for is the same thing we’ve been asking for years . . . Defund the police and invest in our communities.”

In 2017, state and local governments around the US spent $115bn on police — some 4 per cent of state and local direct general expenditures — according to the Urban Institute. That share has stayed constant for the past four decades, even as the rising cost of healthcare means other big-ticket items, such as elementary education, now constitute a smaller portion of municipal budgets.

Most of the money is used to pay salaries and benefits to police officers, so cutting more than 15 per cent of a department’s budget often means cutting the size of the force, Weiss said.

Police officer pay has increased as police unions have grown in power and unions are some of the defunding movement’s most dedicated opponents. After Austin City Council in August voted to cut the police budget by $150m, the Texas Municipal Police Association put up a billboard outside the city, saying, “Warning!!! Austin Police Defunded Enter at Your Own Risk”.

Critics have warned that crime will rise if police budgets are cut. The number of homicides did rise in most US cities last year. Although the reasons are unclear, that increase seems to be unrelated to police budget cuts, which in most cases had not yet taken effect.

Some Democrats have been critical too. President Joe Biden said in a meeting with civil rights leaders that talk of defunding the police was how Republicans “beat the living hell out of us across the country” in the November elections.

An Ipsos/USA Today poll released last month found that 18 per cent of Americans support defunding the police, and only 11 per cent support abolition. About 57 per cent support fully funding their own local police department, while 43 per cent support redirecting some of that money to social services.

Richard Auxier, a tax and budget expert at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said that since police budgets were set by local governments: “there are literally thousands of them across the country, . . . and they all have their own politics”.

The politics have been particularly intense in Minneapolis. Three of the councillors who took the pledge in June backed away from it. The Minneapolis Charter Commission, a previously obscure body, killed an attempt last year by council members to place a proposal on the ballot that would replace the police department with a new public safety agency. The Minneapolis City Council launched a second attempt in January.

Activist Antonio Williams is a canvas director for the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition, which is trying to land an initiative on the ballot that is similar to the city council’s. (A third group, Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, also is pursuing a ballot initiative.) So far more than 20,000 residents have signed the Yes 4 Minneapolis petition.

A demonstrator holds Daunte Wright’s portrait during the seventh night of protests over his shooting by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota on Saturday © Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Williams said some of the residents he had spoken to thought the petition’s language went too far, while others thought it did too little. He sees all those conversations as a first step in the process of persuading someone to sign, then to show up at the polls in November to support the initiative.

For him and other activists, the killings of Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center police officer, or of Toledo in Chicago, add no urgency to their cause, because it has always been urgent. But perhaps for some, the fact that Wright’s death occurred while former police officer Derek Chauvin is being tried for Floyd’s death, when the world is watching Minneapolis, underlines “a dire need for some change”.

“It’s going to continue to happen all over the country until policing as we know it and see it is done away with,” said Williams.

Certainly Floyd’s death “galvanised” the city’s residents on the issue of police misconduct, Williams said. He doubts the signature drive could have succeeded 11 months ago. “The conversation could have been had for sure, but the next step, the commitment, the action part of it?” he said. “I don’t see it happening.”





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UK business groups call for mandatory reporting of ethnicity pay gap

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A duty for large companies to publish the pay gap between staff of different ethnicities would be a straightforward step to tackle racial inequality in the workplace, according to UK business groups and economists who accuse the government-commissioned race report of downplaying the extent of problems in the labour market.

A storm of criticism greeted the report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (Cred), after it concluded last month that the UK was not “rigged” against minorities and that “very few” disparities were linked to racism. But the main complaint from business groups was its failure to recommend a statutory reporting obligation of the kind in place since 2017 for gender pay disclosure.

The report said there had been a “broadly positive story” on ethnic minorities’ place in the labour market over the past 25 years, with “a gradual convergence on the white average in employment, pay and entry into the middle class”.

But Jonathan Portes, professor at King’s College London, said Cred had relied on “crude sleight of hand” in presenting statistics to back up its narrative.

Ethnic pay gaps have not improved over time in the UK, gap in mean wages (%), 9-year rolling average*

A headline gap of 2.3 per cent between the hourly median pay of all minorities and white British employees hides a much bigger gap for certain groups — with those of Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnicity at particular disadvantage, and black men suffering a far bigger shortfall than black women.

Alan Manning, a professor at the London School of Economics, said that after adjusting the data for personal characteristics such as age, qualifications and family status, there was “no evidence for pay gaps being smaller . . . than they were 25 years ago”, and that while the ethnic penalties for some groups had improved over time, “the overriding impression is of stasis”.

These persistent pay disparities partly reflect occupational segregation, with many ethnic minorities clustered in low-paid jobs with little chance of progression. Andrea Barry, an analyst at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, notes Bangladeshi men are three times as likely as white British men to work as chefs and waiters, while Pakistani men are more than 10 times as likely to work as taxi drivers.

But they also reflect the barriers to career progression in professional life. Ethnicity pay gaps are largest in managerial, professional and skilled occupations — and when employers examine pay differentials within their organisations, they generally find ethnic minority employees are concentrated in frontline roles, and under-represented at senior level.

The new rise in youth unemployment has been much worse for those from black and Asian backgrounds,  unemployment rate for those aged 16-24 in the UK (%)

A growing number of employers — from law and accountancy firms to local authorities and large companies such as Sainsbury and Network Rail — now report ethnicity pay gaps on a voluntary basis.

Cred endorsed this voluntary approach, arguing that there were statistical “pitfalls” in trying to impose the framework used for gender pay to report outcomes for many ethnic groups.

However, business groups have repeatedly urged the government to introduce a mandatory reporting requirement, modelled on gender pay disclosure, arguing that practical difficulties can be overcome.

Matthew Fell, CBI chief UK policy director, said pay gap disclosure was “one of the most transformative steps a company can take to address race inequality at work”.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, criticised Cred for a “missed opportunity” to press for mandatory disclosure, adding: “Racial equality at work is not just about participation in employment but also about progression into more senior roles. Pay reporting can highlight organisations and sectors where this is not happening.”

Sandra Kerr, of Business in the Community, campaigns for mandatory reporting © S Meddle/ITV/Shutterstock

Sandra Kerr, race director at the charity Business in the Community, which has campaigned for mandatory reporting, said that while disclosure was not a “silver bullet”, it prompted companies to examine where people were sitting in their organisation, and was a way of “ensuring that the conversation is had at the top table”.

BITC has found that barely one in 10 large companies reports on its ethnicity pay gap voluntarily, and points to a sharp drop-off in gender pay reporting last year, when the pandemic led to a suspension of the usual requirement to disclose the pay gap between male and female staff.

The government consulted in 2018 on options to introduce a mandatory requirement, and has tested possible approaches to reporting with various businesses, but it has not yet taken further action. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said that it would respond to the consultation “in due course”.

Ethnicity pay reporting is more complicated than for gender. One issue is disclosure: many companies hold only patchy data because employees do not have to disclose their ethnicity and some are reluctant to do so — or unable to find a box to tick that matches their heritage.

A bigger issue is sample sizes. Ideally, employers would give a detailed breakdown of outcomes for different ethnic groups, but it is not always possible to do this while preserving anonymity. Cred argued that many employers recruiting from predominantly white areas do not have enough ethnic minority staff for a median pay comparison to be meaningful.

But business groups say these issues are manageable, if companies also put the headline figures in context and explain how they plan to close pay gaps.

Network Rail has published figures showing the pay gap for black employees is much bigger than for Asian colleagues © Alamy Stock Photo

Network Rail, for example, has published figures showing the pay gap for black employees is much bigger than for Asian colleagues, based on disclosure by 90 per cent of staff. With more than 100 nationalities among its staff, it collects more granular data to inform internal policy but does not publish figures where the sample size is too small to be reliable.

Sainsbury, meanwhile, has published figures showing that median pay for black employees is higher than for white colleagues — explaining that more black staff work in London stores with a higher pay weighting. Mean pay for black employees, who are under-represented at senior level, still lags.

Without an accompanying narrative of this kind, a pay report is “not worth the paper it’s printed on”, Kerr said.

The complexity of reporting ethnicity pay data is no reason not to report it, as Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, has argued.

“Published pay gaps are a starting point for corporate and national accountability and explanation, not an end point,” he said in 2019. “No single metric can perfectly summarise all dimensions of diversity. But publication of a single metric can, and has, served as the catalyst for an explanation and action.”



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