ILO: Workplace discrimination, a picture of hope and concern

A new ILO report on discrimination at work - the most comprehensive to date - says workplace discrimination remains a persistent global problem, with new, more subtle forms emerging. While significant progress in combatting inequalities at the workplace is cause for hope, the report says new forms of discrimination are cause for growing concern.

GENEVA - The ILO's newest global report on discrimination - prepared under the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work - is aptly entitled " Time for Equality at Work" 1. And it shows decisively that unless action is taken, that time is still a long way off.

"This may be the most challenging task of contemporary society, and it is essential for social peace and democracy," the report says. Adds Director-General Juan Somavia: "Every day, around the world, discrimination at work is an unfortunate reality for hundreds of millions of people."

The ILO report lays the blame for continuing discrimination on prejudices, stereotypes and biased institutions that have resisted decades of legal efforts and policy measures undertaken by governments, workers and employers against unequal treatment at work.

The report shows that many who suffer from discrimination - especially on the basis of their sex or colour - face a persistent "equality gap" that divides them from dominant groups who enjoy a better life, or even from their own peers who have benefited from anti-discrimination laws and policies.

But Mr. Somavia said the news is not all bad. "We have made progress", he said. "Today, formal condemnation of discrimination is virtually universal and action to stop discrimination at work has been taken in many places. Still, discrimination remains a constantly evolving 'moving target' and we have a long way to go on the road to equality.".

What is discrimination at work?

Discrimination is defined under ILO Convention No. 111 as any distinction, exclusion or preference made on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin (among other characteristics), "which has the effect of nullifying or impairing equality of opportunity and treatment in employment or occupation".
Discrimination can perpetuate poverty, stifle development, productivity and competitiveness, and ignite political instability, says the report which was prepared under the ILO's 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
(See Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111) and its accompanying Recommendation ( No. 111), Article 1(1a)). As of May 2003, ratified by 158 of the ILO's 176 member States.
The Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 ( No. 100) has been ratified by 160 member States.)

Discrimination is still a common problem in the workplace. While some of the more blatant forms of discrimination may have faded, many remain, and others have taken on new or less visible forms, the report says.
Global migration combined with the redefinition of national boundaries and growing economic problems and inequalities have worsened xenophobia and racial and religious discrimination.
More recently, new forms of discrimination based on disability, HIV/AIDS, age or sexual orientation are cause for growing concern.

  • Progress in fighting discrimination at work has been uneven and patchy, even for long recognized forms such as discrimination against women. Discrimination at work will not vanish by itself; neither will the market, on its own, take care of it.
  • Inequalities within discriminated groups are widening. Affirmative action policies, for example, helped create a new middle class of formerly-discriminated persons in some countries. A few rise to the top of the social ladder, while most remain among the low paid and socially excluded.
  • Discrimination often traps people in low-paid, "informal" economy jobs. The discriminated are often stuck in the worst jobs, and denied benefits, social protection, training, capital, land or credit. Women are more likely than men to be engaged in these more invisible and undercounted activities.
  • The failure to eradicate discrimination helps perpetuate poverty. Discrimination creates a web of poverty, forced and child labour and social exclusion, the report says, adding "eliminating discrimination is indispensable to any viable strategy for poverty reduction and sustainable economic development".
  • Everyone gains from eliminating discrimination at work - individuals, enterprises and society at large. Fairness and justice at the workplace boosts the self-esteem and morale of workers. A more motivated and productive workforce enhances the productivity and competitiveness of businesses.

Types of discrimination: a "moving target"

Sex discrimination is by far the most prevalent. And women are by far the largest discriminated group. Although more and more women are working, in addition to the "glass ceiling", the "pay gap" between women and men is still significant in most countries. Women are also more likely to be stuck in lower-paid and least secure jobs.
They faced higher unemployment rates. Discrimination can occur at every stage of employment, from recruitment to education and remuneration, occupational segregation, and at time of lay-offs.

In common with all forms of discrimination, racial discrimination persists and affects migrants, ethnic minorities, indigenous and tribal peoples and others vulnerable groups.
Rising levels of global migration have significantly altered patterns of racial discrimination against migrant workers, second and third generation migrants and citizens of foreign origin. It is the perception of these workers as foreigners - even when they are not - that may lead to discrimination against them.

Discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS is a growing concern, especially among women. This can take many forms, including pre-employment testing leading to a refusal to hire, testing of long-term foreign visitors before entering a country, and in some countries, mandatory tests for migrant workers.
Other forms of discrimination include dismissal without medical evidence, notice or a hearing, demotion, denial of health insurance benefits, salary reductions and harassment.

The number of people with disabilities, currently put at some 7-10 per cent of the world's population, is likely to grow as the population ages. The majority live in developing countries, and disability rates appear higher in rural areas than in urban areas.
The most common form of discrimination is the denial of opportunities, both in the labour market, and in education and training.
Unemployment rates for people with disabilities reach 80 per cent or more in many developing countries. People with disabilities are often trapped in low-paid, unskilled and menial jobs, with little or no social protection.

Over the past decade, discrimination based on religion appears to have increased. The current global political climate has helped fuel sentiments of mutual fear and discrimination between religious groups, threatening to destabilize societies and generate violence.
Religious discrimination can include offensive behaviour at work by co-workers or managers towards members of religious minorities; lack of respect and ignorance of religious customs; the obligation to work on religious days or holidays; bias in recruitment or promotion; denial of a business licence; and lack of respect for dress customs.

Concerns over discrimination based on age are also growing. By 2050, 33 per cent of people in developed countries and 19 per cent in developing countries will be 60 or older, most of them women.
Discrimination can be overt, such as age limits for hiring, or take more subtle forms, such as allegations that people lack career potential, or have too much experience. Other forms of discrimination include limited access to training and conditions that virtually compel early retirement. Age discrimination is not limited to workers nearing retirement.

Many people suffer from "multiple discrimination". Indigenous and tribal people, for example, are among the poorest of the poor, and women within these groups are even more severely affected.
The intensity or severity of the disadvantages they may confront depend on how many personal characteristics may generate discrimination, and how these interrelate.
For example, one person can have several characteristics that give rise to discrimination. People who suffer several forms of discrimination tend to be over-represented among the poor, particularly the chronic poor, and in the informal economy.

The ILO response

The ILO report says the workplace - whether a factory, office, plantation, farm or household - is a strategic entry point for fighting discrimination. "When the workplace brings together people with different characteristics and treats them fairly, it helps to combat stereotypes in society as a whole", the report says.
"It forces a situation where prejudices can be defused and rendered obsolete. A socially inclusive world of work helps to prevent and to redress social fragmentation, racial and ethnic conflict and gender inequalities."

So far, the report says, outlawing discrimination at work has failed to eliminate the practice. Still, the report concludes that laws banning discrimination are an indispensable, but insufficient, step.
Effective enforcement institutions, positive action, unbiased education, training and employment services, and data to monitor progress, are also necessary. This mix of policies and instruments is essential whatever the form of discrimination.

"Eliminating discrimination at work is everybody's responsibility", Mr. Somavia says. "The State has the obligation of banning discriminatory practices and establishing sound laws and institutions and policies that promote equal opportunities at work. Employers and workers organizations, individually and together, should identify and combat discriminatory practices at the workplace.
Most importantly, the voices of discriminated workers and employers need to be heard, no matter where they work."

The report was prepared as a follow-up to the adoption of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work by the International Labour Conference in 1998.
The Declaration reaffirmed the constitutional principle of the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation, thereby confirming the universal resolve to suppress discrimination in the world of work through the promotion of equal treatment and opportunity.
The Declaration emphasizes that all ILO member States have an obligation to respect the fundamental principles involved, whether or not they have ratified the relevant Conventions.