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Equal treatment


The principle of equal treatment requires that all people, and in the context of the workplace all workers, have the right to receive the same treatment, and will not be discriminated against on the basis of criteria such as age, disability, nationality, race and religion.

Council Directive 2000/78 of 27 November 2000 establishes a general framework to ensure equal treatment for all in employment and occupation without regard to an individual’s religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. The Directive covers conditions of access to employment or self-employed activities, including selection criteria, recruitment conditions and promotion, vocational training, working conditions including dismissals and pay, and membership of and involvement in organisations of workers or professional organisations.

The Directive prohibits both ‘direct’ discrimination (less favourable treatment) and ‘indirect’ discrimination (where an apparently neutral provision or practice puts persons having a particular religion or belief, disability, age, or sexual orientation at a particular disadvantage), and includes harassment in the workplace (unwanted conduct related to any of these grounds which has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, and of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment). Member States may also take positive action measures: specific measures to prevent or compensate for disadvantages linked to any of the enumerated grounds. Member States are also required to ensure that procedures are in place for the enforcement of the obligations under the Directive to enable all persons who consider themselves wronged by the failure to apply the principle of equal treatment. Sanctions to be applied for infringements, including compensation, are to be ‘effective, proportionate and dissuasive’.

Sex discrimination is covered by Article 2 of Council Directive of 9 February 1976. The Directive defines the principle of equal treatment for women and men as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions as meaning ‘that there shall be no discrimination whatsoever on grounds of sex either directly or indirectly by reference in particular to marital or family status’ (as revised by Council Directive 2002/73/EC).

Equivalent definitions are also found in Article 2 of Council Directive 97/80/EC of 15 December 1997 on the burden of proof in cases of discrimination based on sex; Directive 2000/78; and Council Directive 2000/43 of 29 June 2000 which implements the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin.

A range of specialised bodies that exist at both EU and Member State levels have been designed to combat discrimination and have responsibility for dealing with equality issues. At the Community level, one example is the Fundamental rights agency. Such bodies usually have a special role in relation to victims of discrimination, and engage in both political and legal processes.

Part-time workers

Equal treatment of part-time workers refers to the prohibition of discrimination against those ‘whose normal hours of work, calculated on a weekly basis or on average over a period of employment of up to one year, are less than the normal hours of work of a comparable full-time worker.’ (Clause 3, Framework Agreement on part-time work, as implemented by Council Directive 97/81/EC of 15 December 1997).

Nonetheless, less favourable treatment of part-time workers is justifiable provided the treatment is on grounds unrelated to sex discrimination under EU law. The court has to strike a balance between the discriminatory effect of the condition and the reasonable needs of the party who apply the condition. Moreover, the business needs of an employer may outweigh the rights of the part-time female worker to equal treatment. If discrimination is established against female part-timers, their maximum entitlement under EU law is to equal treatment with male full-timers on a pro-rata basis, though this may not resolve the many challenges posed by part-time work.

See also: atypical work; discrimination; equal treatment in collective bargaining; part-time work; self-employed person; non-discrimination principle.


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.
Page last updated: 21 September, 2011