One in five working-age Britons say they have faced discrimination at work within the past year, according to research that underlines the need to strengthen the system for workers to seek redress through the courts.
A survey by the Resolution Foundation think-tank, published on Tuesday, found that 8mn people aged 18-64 felt they had missed out on a job, promotion, training opportunity or suffered other disadvantages because of a characteristic that should have been protected in law.
Ageism affected the largest numbers, with the survey pointing to 3.7mn people who felt they had suffered discrimination on that basis — including 16 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 11 per cent of those aged between 55 and 65.
This finding is striking, given the large numbers of older workers who have chosen to leave the workforce before reaching state pension age since the coronavirus pandemic — many of whom say that ageist recruitment practices and a workplace culture centred on youth played a part in their decision.
Although many employers are making efforts to address other forms of discrimination — partly spurred by requirements for gender pay reporting, and the gradual spread of voluntary reporting on ethnicity pay gaps — very few companies take proactive steps to recruit or promote older workers.
However, the survey showed discrimination on the grounds of race was even more prevalent, despite commitments made by many employers after the death of George Floyd to address race-related bias in the hiring and progression of staff.
The Resolution Foundation said more than a fifth of people from ethnic minority backgrounds reported facing discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity alone, while also being more likely to find their age or sex counted against them in the workplace.
The survey suggested 2.7mn people of working age faced discrimination because of their sex.
People with a disability were also disproportionately likely to say they were being turned down for jobs, promotion and training because of their status.
The think-tank said the poll suggested discrimination was at least as widespread as when previous surveys ran in the UK in 2008, 2015 and 2021 — although it noted that some people appeared to be reporting problems they had faced over a longer time period than the past year they were asked about.
Hannah Slaughter, senior economist at the think-tank, said the research showed discrimination remained “all too common in workplaces today”, and pointed to the need for the government to bolster enforcement of workers’ rights and help low-paid workers take action through the courts.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, responsible for tackling the issue, has had four-fifths of its funding cut in real terms since 2008, leaving it able to take on only a small number of key cases.
But the employment tribunal system — the main route of redress — favours higher paid employees who are better able to fund a long legal process and more likely to gain, since out-of-court settlements are frequent and generally related to earnings.
The Foundation found that low-paid workers earning less than £20,000 were in 2017 around half as likely to take their employer to court as those earning £40,000 or more.