Tackling racism at the workplace

Racism has become a problematic issue in Irish workplaces as immigration levels have increased. After a period of inactivity, the government and the social partners have made more of an effort to address this thorny issue in 2001. Much remains to be done, however, to tackle racism and promote diversity.

In a context of strong economic growth and labour shortages, the number of people entering the Irish labour market from overseas has increased considerably in recent years. In contrast to many other European countries, however, the extent of immigration has historically been low in Ireland, and in comparative terms, remains so. The recent influx of immigrants into Irish workplaces has led to problems associated with racism. With the Irish economy now in the midst of a slowdown, growing tensions could emerge in Irish society, which could potentially spark growing racism at the workplace.

Race discrimination legislation

The two main pieces of legislation in Ireland covering direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnic origin, are the Employment Equality Act 1998 (IE9909144F), and the Equal Status Act 2000 (IE0109101F). The Employment Equality Act 1998 outlaws discrimination on the nine grounds of race, gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, disability, age, and membership of the travelling community. The Equal Status Act 2000 incorporates the same nine grounds for prohibiting discrimination as the Employment Equality Act, but its anti-discrimination prohibitions extend beyond employment discrimination into the public arena, in relation to issues such as access to education and housing and the provision of goods and services.

In October 1999, a new Equality Authority was established under the Employment Equality Act. The Equality Authority is a public enforcement body charged with promoting equality and tackling discrimination on the nine grounds. It also established the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations, whose remit is to decide claims under both the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act.

In addition to domestic legislation, Ireland has to comply with the recently adopted EUCouncil Directive 2000/43/EC of 29 June 2000, implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin (EU0006256F). This Directive, which was adopted on 29 June 2000, prohibits discrimination on grounds of race and ethnic origin, and covers employment and education and social protection. The Irish government has until 19 July 2003 to implement the Directive. The basic equality legislation and institutional supports required by the Directive are already in place in Ireland.

Racism at work: a growing problem?

There is evidence to suggest that racism is becoming a growing problem in Irish workplaces. According to the chief executive of the Equality Authority, Niall Crowley, more than 20% of the Authority's case load under the Employment Equality Act involves complaints of racial discrimination by black and ethnic minority people: 'This reflects a significant growth and is the second highest area of casework after the gender ground.' The issues raised in these race cases include access to employment, working conditions, harassment, dismissal and equal pay.

Recent anti-racism initiatives

There are some positive signs that employers, trade unions and the government are beginning to take the issue of racism and multiculturalism more seriously than in the past. The government has recently become more vocal on the issue, after a period of near silence, and the social partners are also showing more signs of activity.

A three-year National Anti-Racism Awareness Programme was launched by the Prime Minister (Taoiseach) in October 2001. The Programme is being implemented by a steering committee established by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Its role is to educate people and change attitudes about diversity and racism. Moreover, there are immediate plans to establish an expert panel of 22 anti-racism trainers, through the Equality Authority, to undertake training programmes in workplaces across Ireland.

The Equality Authority has been closely involved in a number of anti-racism initiatives. It has produced a handbook on anti-racist best practice in Irish workplaces. The Equality Authority was also closely involved in organising the second annual 'Anti-racism in the workplace week', which took place between 5-9 November 2001. The event was organised in conjunction with the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC), the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), and the Construction Industry Federation (CIF). The purpose of the anti-racism week was to give employers, trade unions and workers the opportunity to focus attention on the issue of racism at the workplace.

As part of this anti-racism week, IBEC staged a workshop on diversity and anti-racism training among employers. The purpose of the workshop was to discuss relevant training programmes and examine examples of best practice in the area. IBEC's director of social policy stated that 'it is essential that employers take a leadership role in ensuring that racism does not take a hold in the Irish workplace.'

Ireland's largest union, the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) has recently been active in trying to prevent the exploitation of low-paid non-Irish national workers, in areas such as contract cleaning. A SIPTU representative commented: 'We have documented examples of contract cleaners who have been forced to work for less than the legal statutory minimum wage, who have been refused any overtime pay for work done after hours and who have been threatened with eviction from their homes and being sacked from their jobs for objecting to such practices.'

Case studies of diversity initiatives

There are a number of 'best practice' examples of companies which have implemented diversity and anti-racism policies. IBM, the US-based information technology multinational, and Eircom, the Irish telecommunications operator, are two notable examples.

At IBM's sales and service centre in Dublin, 1,350 people are employed, of which around 70% are non-Irish nationals. In view of this, the company places an important emphasis on promoting diversity. For instance, diversity education programmes have recently commenced at the centre, in which experienced trainers conduct short courses where diversity issues are explored. According to the centre's operations manager, 'we would recognise that to appreciate diversity, to acknowledge it and celebrate it, is a proactive thing ... Apart from the moral imperative to ensure everyone is treated equally, there is a real economic and marketplace imperative associated with diversity.'

Eircom has developed a diversity strategy and a 'dignity at work' programme. Significantly, it has a diversity manager whose role is to promote diversity issues. The aims of Eircom's diversity strategy are to:'capitalise on a diverse workforce to fulfil our business goals and leverage the new psychological contract; develop effective strategies to tap into the talents and potential of all employees - no one is excluded; develop a range of work-life initiatives to suit the business objectives and the employee needs; [and] deploy diversity philosophy into the customer care area to enhance customer loyalty and satisfaction.'

It is claimed that the diversity strategy is helping achieve the following benefits at Eircom: retention of experienced employees; an edge in recruitment; reductions in labour costs; improvements in productivity, job satisfaction and commitment; and enhanced customer service and retention.


Workplace racism has become a growing problem in Ireland as immigration levels have risen from a historically low level. After a slow start, positive initiatives are starting to emerge aimed at tackling racism and promoting diversity at the workplace. However, a lot more work remains to be done to tackle the issue. One fear is that racism may increase if the current economic slowdown continues, particularly if unemployment rises, and the social pressures associated with this, begin to bite. (Tony Dobbins, CEROP, UCD)

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