Equal treatment


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

Background and status

Equal treatment plays a key role in the European Pillar of Social Rights, formally proclaimed by the EU institutions on 17 November 2017. In fact, it is at the core of the Pillar’s first category: equal opportunities and access to the labour market. This category guarantees gender equality and equal opportunities irrespective of ethnic origin, race, religion, gender, age and sexual orientation. Moreover, the second category, fair working conditions, establishes that workers have the right to fair and equal treatment regardless of the type and duration of the employment relationship.

A range of specialised bodies have been established at both EU and Member State levels to combat discrimination and are responsible for dealing with equality issues. One example at EU level 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.

Regulatory aspects

Equal treatment in employment

The Employment Equality Directive (Council Directive 2000/78/EC) establishes a general framework to ensure equal treatment for all in relation to employment and occupation regardless of an individual’s religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. The directive covers the 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.

As well as prohibiting direct discrimination – that is, less favourable treatment – the directive proscribes indirect discrimination, whereby an apparently neutral provision or practice puts a person with a particular religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation at a disadvantage. It also prohibits harassment in the workplace, defined as 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. Furthermore, the directive encourages Member States to take positive action measures: specific measures to prevent or compensate for disadvantages linked to any of the grounds mentioned above. Member States are also required to ensure that procedures for the enforcement of these obligations are available to anyone who considers themselves wronged by failure to apply the principle of equal treatment. Sanctions for infringements, including compensation, are to be ‘effective, proportionate and dissuasive’.

Sex discrimination

Sex discrimination is covered by Article 2 of Council Directive 2002/73/EC, which amended Council Directive 76/207/EEC. The directive defines the principle of equal treatment of 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’.

Equivalent definitions are found in Article 2 of Council Directive 97/80/EC on the burden of proof in cases of discrimination based on sex; Directive 2000/78/EC on establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation; Directive 2000/43/EC, which implements the principle of equal treatment irrespective of racial or ethnic origin; and recast Directive 2006/54/EC on equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation.

Part-time workers

According to the Framework Agreement on part-time work implemented by Council Directive 97/81/EC, the 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.

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

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


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