Covid-19 is revealing a number of deep-seated inequalities.
Whilst the differential health outcomes for ethnic minorities make headlines, less well reported is the devastating impact on small businesses that provide an economic lifeline for minority communities: retail, catering and (for younger groups) the creative sector. Our ESRC research focuses on productivity in smaller firms (microbusinesses employing fewer than 10 workers) run by ethnic minorities in these sectors. Many business owners we’re researching have effectively closed and are struggling to survive. We describe our efforts to provide some support to these struggling entrepreneurs. A key message is to remain engage and be responsive. Active listening, convening resources and taking action are central to this approach.
Many business owners continue to be engaged with the research and are keen to share their experiences of getting by in the crisis. We have undertaken a number of rapid consultations and listening exercises with business owners and intermediaries in the three sectors. These interventions are all the more important because many microbusinesses in our study are rarely part of mainstream networks of guidance and support. Many entrepreneurs felt harshly treated by the authorities in comparison to larger firms. They believed that they were ‘last in the queue’ to receive financial assistance. As one business owner reflected, ‘it seems to go to the big businesses first and then trickles down to the little guys like me.’
In a similar vein, others felt there had been some unfair implementation of lockdown trading rules, with larger businesses receiving greater freedom of interpretation than microbusinesses who often had no one to turn to for clarification or were penalised for their misunderstanding. As this shopkeeper explained, ‘The police came into the shop and asked why we were open. I said, “We do these essentials.” They were happy with that but then said, “You’re also selling clothes. You can’t sell clothes.” (…) Which begs the question, if a shop can open, why partially? [X supermarket] is open but not partially, I’ve bought non-essential things from there.’
Our listening events revealed a worrying reluctance by owners to draw on the Government’s package of financial measures to support businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic. For many this decision is a matter of pride, for some it’s a deliberate choice to avoid debt accumulation, whilst others cite a general lack of understanding and wariness regarding loans, exasperated further in the Covid-19 pandemic by a lack of clarity, changing parameters and opportunists moving into a space to exploit those most in need.
We decided to convene a virtual meeting between business owners, civil society organisations and the local authority official responsible for distributing funds for business schemes. The official clarified a number of misperceptions on the government. Business owners provided vital information to the official on how the local authority’s approach to communication could be developed to strengthen its engagement with excluded communities. As a result of this event, seven business owners made successful applications to the government schemes.
Our interactions with business owners have resulted in a number of actions designed to promote awareness and provide practical support:
- Amplifying business owners’ voices. Business owners and researchers have appeared together on a number of well-established podcasts to highlight challenges facing microbusinesses. The first features a Bangladeshi caterer warning of the threats to the sector from Covid-19.
- Developing new business models: Researchers are working with a music sector intermediary to develop a business support programme to help creative entrepreneurs to develop new business and management practices in light of Covid-19
- Promoting self-organisation. Researchers will support a group of local retailers who have agreed to meet on a regular basis to promote the concerns of their community to public authorities.