UK firms urged to examine slavery links and ‘eradicate racism’

Business groups have told companies they should examine their role in history after two big firms said they intended to make financial donations to minority communities in reparation for their role in the slave trade.

Pub chain and brewer Greene King and insurance marketing group Lloyd’s of London both said they would make donations, amid intense scrutiny on the legacy of slavery in the UK and the continued effects of racism.

Some of the UK’s most recognisable business names have said they are considering their historic links to the slave trade, including banks such as Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group and the private bank Arbuthnot Latham.

RBS also said a newly founded taskforce would consider making donations to charitable groups in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Institute of Directors (IoD) welcomed introspection from businesses with historic links to slavery, amid increased scrutiny prompted by recent Black Lives Matter protests and campaigns to remove statues of slave owners and imperialists.

“Companies with a history of benefiting from slavery should carefully consider how they address their past,” said Matthew Fell, the CBI’s chief UK policy director.

“Acknowledging and learning from previous wrongdoing is vital for organisations to take the right steps in future.

“Creating real change must start now. As business leaders, it is our collective responsibility to recognise, condemn and eradicate racism in all its forms.”

The CBI said companies should focus on increasing boardroom representation of black and ethnic minority workers and making sure that future policy challenges ethnic inequalities.

“This feels like a significant moment. Businesses are reflecting on these issues in a deeper way than was common previously,” said a spokesman for the IoD.

“It is the role and responsibility of directors to think about their company’s relationship with the community around them and it is right that they should consider acting now.”

Progress from large UK companies on ethnic diversity has been slow in recent years. Only 53 of Britain’s FTSE 100 companies at the end of 2019 had at least one director from an ethnic minority, according to figures compiled in February for the latest annual review led by the City grandee Sir John Parker. In 2016 he said every FTSE company should have a board member from an ethnic minority by 2021.

The IoD’s chair, Charlotte Valeur, last year accused FTSE 100 firms of “lying” when they said they were unable to recruit more executives and directors from ethnic minorities.

Disparities in pay between white British workers and those from ethnic minorities remain a significant problem as well.

Ruby McGregor-Smith, a Tory peer who is president of the British Chambers of Commerce, this week called for Boris Johnson to implement recommendations from a 2017 review she carried out, including forcing companies to improve their reporting of ethnic pay gaps.

The prime minister has faced criticism for his decision to start another review of racial inequality, despite the government not acting on policy recommendations in previous reviews.

Lady McGregor-Smith told the Financial Times: “The big gap is ethnicity pay reporting  … and that needs to change.”

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