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George Osborne’s Export Vision – What it Means For Us

George Osborne announced this week that Britain needs to export more, and his target is India. The Chancellor and Foreign Secretary William Hague were on a two-day trip looking for investment opportunities for UK firms in India's defence and infrastructure sector, and hoping to attract Indian investment into Britain.

India is one of the emerging economic superpowers which could be a remarkable source of trade both now and in the future. Already India has more physical investment in Britain than the whole of the EU put together in companies like Jaguar Land Rover.

If the new Indian premier, Mr Modi, is prepared to talk about reducing trade barriers against British exporters, this could be an excellent step for the UK. Since Britain’s relationship with the EU seems to be breaking down, finding other markets – particularly those that will be the markets of tomorrow – will be a vital step for our economy.

Indian companies and UK companies with large numbers of Indian employees are nothing new to Britain, but if this new vision of trade starts to affect more and more companies then many may need to adapt to a changing ethnic make-up of their workforce. With luck, South American markets may also open up to more UK companies.

Business and social developments always have an impact on the workplace. If business opportunities with India come our way, we need to be identify and manage risks, to ensure we get the benefit of the trade opportunities and not spending huge amounts of time and money sorting our problems. A significant risk area might be unlawful discrimination.

Discrimination law has, in various forms, existed for well over 40 years, but it is remarkable that so many people forget how wide ranging it can be and how it can start from a very minor level. Calling a Welshman “Taffy” is a very minor form of race discrimination because it’s a nickname based on his nationality or national origin.

Involvement with workers from differing ethnic backgrounds often brings with it the possibility of stereotypes. We do so love to pigeonhole people irrespective of the facts. Welshmen do not go round everywhere singing and wearing a miner’s helmet; the Irish are not spectacularly stupid (no more than anyone else anyway) and the Scots are not especially mean. We’re always telling our clients to deal with the facts, not relying on worn out inaccurate assumptions.

Not long ago I came across the case of someone calling a Chilean worker ‘Pedro’ and asking him what drawer he kept his castanets in. Many people would not find this offensive the first time, although some would. Even someone who didn’t find it offensive the first time might walk into work one morning in a foul mood, receive the standard bit of banter, but this time lodge a grievance. Or someone who overheard the exchange might find it offensive – the effect of banter isn’t limited to the recipient. And even if it was ‘just banter’, an employment judge wouldn’t be impressed. Judges are now known for their rollicking senses of earthy industrial humour.

The definition of harassment is:

... unwanted language or behaviour which has the purpose or effect either of violating a person’s dignity or creating an environment which is offensive, upsetting, intimidating or humiliating.

Migrant workers also have their own cultural idiosyncracies and styles of working. Whilst India is a strong democracy and generally follows values not dissimilar from our own, some overseas workers may have different attitudes, for example towards women, which are not acceptable in Britain. How does one deal with these? It depends on the situation, but generally whilst you can believe what you like you can’t always say exactly what you like. In the UK the law provides for men and women to have equal rights in the workplace. That is the situation and employees must accept it.

This highlights the critical need for training and education in the areas of diversity, equal pay and disciplinary and grievance procedures. Plenty of employers have beautifully written equal treatment policies, but have never trained their people in what they mean or even encouraged them to read them. A policy is only the starting point. If you want show that you’re also walking the walk, you need to put it into action.

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