ILO underlines need to promote equality at work

A recent International Labour Organization report provides a global picture of job-related discrimination, ranging from traditional forms such as sex, race or religion, to newer forms based on age and sexual orientation. It points to the need for better enforcement of anti-discrimination legislation, as well as non-regulatory initiatives by governments and enterprises, and for equipping the social partners to be more effective in making equality a workplace reality.

In May 2007, the International Labour Organization (ILO) published the second Global Report on discrimination as part of the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The report, entitled Equality at work: Tackling the challenges (1.7Mb PDF), examines emerging issues in patterns of workplace discrimination and recent policy responses.

Concentrating on those issues which are of interest from a European perspective, it can be noted that long-recognised patterns of discrimination based on sex, race and religion persist. In addition, newer forms are emerging such as discrimination on account of age or lifestyle.

Long-recognised forms of discrimination

Throughout the European Union, the difference in average gross hourly earnings between women and men across the economy has remained high at 15%. The difference results, for example, from non-respect of equal pay legislation, labour market segregation and biased evaluation and pay systems.

One method of establishing equal pay is through job evaluation methods that are free from gender bias. In Sweden, for instance, since 2001, the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman (Jämställdhetsombudsmannen, JämO) has undertaken information and education measures to assist the social partners in meeting their obligations under the Equal Opportunities Act. In Portugal, tripartite committees were established in the restaurant and beverage subsectors for the development of a job evaluation method free from gender biases.

The report also shows the persistence of racial and ethnic discrimination. In Europe, the unemployment level among Roma people, for example, is at crisis level; unemployment for Roma women ranges between 50% and 90%. The report states that a major underlying factor of this high unemployment rate is low educational attainment among these women. However, evidence shows that in mixed and integrated settlements Roma people completed secondary education and had formal jobs. As a consequence, the report argues that lower spatial segregation results in better social outcomes.

Regarding religious discrimination, the report draws attention to the issue of wearing an ‘Islamic veil’ in the EU. In 2003, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany (Bundesverfassungsgericht, BVerfG) ruled in favour of a teacher who wanted to wear an Islamic scarf to school; but at least four German states have banned teachers from wearing scarves, and in one state the ban applies to all civil servants.

Newly recognised forms of discrimination

Age discrimination affects both younger and older workers. In countries such as Austria, Belgium, France, Japan and the US, where wage systems and benefits are strongly linked to age and length of service, it is commonly believed that older workers are more expensive and less productive. However, the report argues that this is a misconception and that the productivity of these employees must be assessed on the basis of both their past work experience and the relevance of their skills to the current job.

Biased treatment against younger workers may be found in the payment of lower wages to these workers, longer probation periods and greater reliance on flexible forms of employment contracts. According to the ILO study, the younger workers seem even more vulnerable to age discrimination than their older peers.

The report also states that unfavourable treatment against smokers has spread throughout the world. Moreover, it notes that the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the Italian General Confederation of Labour (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, CGIL) have expressed their concern in this regard, claiming that tolerating discrimination against smokers would open the door to other kinds of discrimination.

Policies and ILO achievements

Only a handful of the 181 ILO member countries have yet to ratify the two main ILO instruments, namely the Equal Remuneration Convention (No. 100) and the Discrimination Convention (No. 111). The former covers equal remuneration for work of equal value, while the latter seeks to eliminate any discrimination with respect to employment or occupation.

The EU policy response has been Directive 2000/43/EC implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin. It requires the EU Member States to designate a national body responsible for combating discrimination.

At the same time, trade unions and employer organisations have developed initiatives aimed at eliminating discrimination in the workplace and making equality a focal point of collective bargaining. The report shows that France, for instance, intends to eliminate the remuneration gap between women and men by 2010.

Finally, the approach recommended in order to achieve equality at the workplace is to complement conventional anti-discrimination policy measures with other policy instruments, such as active labour market policies.

Volker Telljohann and Maite Tapia, Institute for Labour Foundation, Bologna

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