In workplaces up and down the UK, a growing army of new union reps is working hard to ensure their workplaces become fairer, more equal places to work, says a report published by the TUC.

By the end of March, there will be some 1,400 equality reps active in organisations in both the private and public sectors, many of whom will have been trained in their role by the TUC. (There are currently around 200,000 workplace, safety, learning and equality reps in the UK.)

Last year the TUC received funding from the Union Modernisation Fund and the Government Equalities Office to allow it to set up a special project to co-ordinate the recruitment of equality reps and to find out more about the impact reps are having on their workplaces.

The resulting report, The TUC Union Equality Representatives Survey 2009 found that almost two-thirds of equality reps (65 per cent) are located in the public sector, 32 per cent in the private sector, and three per cent in the voluntary sector.

Unsurprisingly, the amount of time equality reps get to spend on their duties has a corresponding impact on how effective they believe their efforts are in the workplace. While almost a quarter of reps (23 per cent) say they spend more than five hours a week on equality related matters, 24 per cent can only spare one hour a week and some complain of having no time at all.

The TUC survey suggests almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of reps believe that their employer gives them sufficient time off to carry out their equality responsibilities, but the remaining 36 per cent feel they don’t get nearly enough time to do the things their role requires them to do.

According to the report, equality reps divide their time between giving advice and information to colleagues, promoting good practice, looking into complaints of harassment or discrimination, and making requests for flexible working.

Commenting on the report, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:

‘Compared to union activities relating to safety and learning, equality reps are a relatively new phenomenon, though some unions have had activists with similar roles for years. Since the TUC launched its dedicated equality reps project, numbers have soared and will top 1,400 by the Spring.

‘Equality reps are making a real difference in thousands of workplaces across the UK. Not only does their presence help improve relations between managers and unions, equality reps also help employers avoid costly litigation, and are a reassuring presence for colleagues threatened by harassment or discrimination at work.

‘But equality reps tell us they could be much more effective in promoting equality if they had more time to carry out their duties. While some are given sufficient time to do their equality work, others have to juggle their union work alongside their paid jobs, which means they are being nowhere near as effective as they could be.

‘Introducing a statutory duty giving equality reps the same right to take time out for their union duties as shop stewards and safety reps would make a real difference.Unions had hoped Government would introduce this new right and we are disappointed that this will not happen this side of an election.’

The TUC Union Equality Representatives Survey 2009 contains examples of several case studies including a focus on the work being carried out by equality reps at the Principality Building Society in Cardiff and by reps employed by Ineos at the Grangemouth Oil Refinery in Scotland.

Further information

The TUC Union Equality Representatives Survey 2009 was written for the TUC by Nicholas Bacon and Kim Hoque from Nottingham University Business School. Surveys were sent out last September to all the equality reps that had undertaken TUC equality training and reminders were sent out in October. A total of 261 responses were received (225 of which are used in the report). The full report is available here