Discrimination at work can occur in many different settings, from high-rise office buildings to rural villages, and in a variety of forms. It can affect men or women on the basis of their sex, or because their race or skin colour, national extraction or social origin, religion, or political opinions differ from those of others. Often countries decide to ban distinctions or exclusions and forbid discrimination on other grounds as well, such as disability, HIV status or age. Discrimination at work denies opportunities for individuals and robs societies of what those people can and could contribute.
Eliminating discrimination starts with dismantling barriers and ensuring equality in access to training, education as well as the ability to own and use resources such as land and credit. It continues with fixing conditions for setting up and running enterprises of all types and sizes, and the policies and practices related to hiring, assignment of tasks, working conditions, pay, benefits, promotions, lay-offs and termination of employment. Merit and the ability to do a job, not irrelevant characteristics, should be the guide.
Discrimination in employment or occupation may be direct or indirect. Direct discrimination exists when laws, rules or practices explicitly cite a particular ground, such as sex, race, etc. to deny equal opportunities. For instance, if a wife, but not a husband, must obtain the spouse's consent to apply for a loan or a passport needed to engage in an occupation, this would be direct discrimination on the basis of sex.
Indirect discrimination occurs where rules or practices appear on the surface to be neutral but in practice lead to exclusions. Requiring applicants to be a certain height could disproportionately exclude women and members of some ethnic groups, for example. Unless the specified height is absolutely necessary to perform the particular job, this would illustrate indirect discrimination.
Equality at work means that all individuals should be accorded equal opportunities to develop fully the knowledge, skills and competencies that are relevant to the economic activities they wish to pursue. Measures to promote equality need to bear in mind diversity in culture, language, family circumstances, and the ability to read and to deal with numbers. For peasants and owners of small or family enterprises, especially the women and ethnic groups, equal access to land (including by inheritance), training, technology and capital is key.
In the case of both employees and self-employed or (own-account) workers, non-discrimination at work depends on equal access to quality education prior to entering the labour market. This is of chief importance for girls and disadvantaged groups. A more equal division of work and family responsibilities in the household would also permit more women to improve their work opportunities.
Effective avenues are needed to permit meaningful challenges to discrimination when it occurs. ILO principles fix minimum thresholds. National laws and practices may well be broader and include more comprehensive approaches for the elimination of discrimination at work.