Employers and unions agree on the promotion of a multicultural working life

"Diversity pays", is the message of the joint guidelines for the promotion of a multicultural working life adopted in November 1997 by Swedish trade unions and employers' organisations as a complement to a proposal for new, stricter legislation prohibiting ethnic discrimination. The parties believe that their guidelines are more likely than statutory provisions to promote measures at the workplace.

The issue of legislating against discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin in working life has been debated in Sweden for the last 30 years, but it was not until 1994 that the first law was enacted. To the very last, even one of the trade union confederations asserted that collective agreements, not legislation, were the appropriate means of combating discrimination.

So far the relevant act has been invoked in only one case before the courts. In 1997 the Government therefore appointed a committee with the task of investigating if the legislation is effective enough. The three trade union confederations and the employers' organisations for the private and public sector were all represented by their experts. The committee came to the conclusion that the act needed tightening up, and presented new draft legislation in December of the same year (SE9712157N).

In certain respects, the Act on Equality between Men and Women has been used as a model for the proposal. Both are divided into two parts, the first concerning active measures for achieving equality/ethnic diversity and the other consisting of rules prohibiting discrimination in individual cases. The draft provisions on active measures promoting ethnic diversity are however not as detailed as the corresponding rules in the act on equality between the sexes. For example, the employer would not be obliged by law to draw up action plans. Instead, in parallel with the work in the committee, the confederations worked out a joint recommendation for the promotion of a multicultural working life. They believe that this is more likely to promote measures at work than a statutory obligation to produce action plans.

The social partners' recommendation

The recommendation on a multicultural working life - signed in November 1997 - states that many people of foreign origin have difficulties in finding jobs, partly due to ignorance and discrimination, partly due to other factors. But irrespective of the reason why, it is a waste of human resources. "Diversity pays" is the message.

The recommendation does not impose any legally binding obligations. It is an appeal to employers' organisations and trade unions, as well as to individual employers and their workers, to generate increased diversity in working life, plus - perhaps more importantly - guidelines as to how this could be done.

The local parties are recommended to start by working out a policy for promoting ethnic diversity. The policy may include measurable aims as to how diversity should develop. Examples are provided of the issues with which the policy could deal. A policy naturally covers all employees, but it could also embrace the organisation's relationship to contract workers. It is also recommended that it should apply to relationships with contractors, suppliers or customers which have inadequate requirements on ethnic factors.

The guidelines go on to define the notions of direct and indirect discrimination and harassment and give examples of all three. If such cases should occur, there should be distinct procedures for how they are to be handled. For example: persons who feel that they are being harassed or discriminated against should have someone to turn to with authority to take relevant measures without delay. Individual complaints should be handled sensitively and with secrecy. The employer should take concrete measures. Managers and supervisors should be trained to prevent, recognise and handle cases of discrimination and harassment.

The recommendation also deals with procedures for recruitment and promotion. It points out that all applicants should be judged by their competence, which does not only mean formal qualifications but also practical experience and personal merits. Since today's Sweden is a society with many nationalities, companies and public authorities need to have many kinds of competence to understand and match the requirements of customers and citizens.

To attain diversity, employers and local trade union branches should examine: recruitment procedures; the way in which advertisements are formulated; the appropriate contact persons; the way in which interviewing groups are composed; and the criteria for selection. Examples are also given of measures that could encourage people from under-represented categories to apply for employment or promotion.

A person in a leading position should be responsible for the implementation of the policy. All employees should be informed of it, and reminded of their own responsibility for its realisation. Finally, it is important that the employer and the local trade union regularly evaluate how the aims and intentions of the policy are fulfilled.

Controversial proposal

If the legal rules on measures promoting ethnic diversity are less strict than the corresponding rules in the Act on equality between men and women, the draft provisions forbidding discrimination on ethnic grounds are more rigorous than those prohibiting sex discrimination. This makes the proposal controversial. In a statement separate from the committee's report, the expert from the Swedish Employers' Confederation (Svenska Arbetsgivareföreningen, SAF) declared that the committee exaggerates the need for legislation counteracting discrimination, and that one should wait and see what employers and trade unions can achieve by themselves before changing the legislation. On the last point, the expert from the National Agency for Government Employers (Arbetsgivarverket) shared the SAF expert's opinion.

The confederations behind the recommendation have agreed to form a joint council charged with the task of following up and supporting the development of diversity in working life. In April 1998 it will meet for the first time. In the meantime, trade unions and employers' organisations in some sectors are negotiating collective agreements based on the recommendation.

Commentary

It is interesting to compare the attitude of the labour market organisations in this situation to what they believed when the first Act on equal opportunities between men and women was introduced in 1980. Then, both sides strongly opposed legislation. When, despite their opposition, the law was enacted, collective agreements were concluded which were more or less the same as the provisions of the law itself (SE9706124F). One effect of such agreements was that the procedural provisions of the law were no longer applicable, which meant that the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman could not intervene against employers which did not fulfil their obligations to carry out active measures to promote equality. Critics in fact claimed that this was the main reason for the conclusion of the agreements - ie the organisations defended their autonomy but their commitment to the cause in question was modest. Irrespective of the validity of these accusations, the agreements had little effect at workplaces. Consequently the legislation was gradually made more stringent, and today the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman oversees compliance with the Act even in sectors covered by collective agreements.

With regard to ethnic discrimination, the confederations have adopted an offensive approach and seem more determined genuinely to deal with the problem. This is probably the best way of defending their autonomy. (Kerstin Ahlberg, NIWL)

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