Workplace discrimination 'a global problem'

May 13 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Workplace discrimination is still prevalent and could have disastrous effects on social cohesion and political stability if it continues unchecked, according to a new report by the United Nations labour agency.

While the most blatant forms of discrimination at work may have faded, many remain a persistent and daily part of the workplace, or are taking on more subtle forms, the UN International Labour Organisation (ILO) says.

“Every day, around the world, discrimination at work is an unfortunate reality for hundreds of millions of people,” ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said. “This new report, aptly entitled ‘Time for Equality at Work,’ shows decisively that unless we take action, that time is still a long way off.”

Women are by far the largest discriminated group, with the pay gap between the sexes still significant in most countries, the report states.

Racial discrimination also persists, though older theories of the purported superiority of one racial or ethnic group over another have been replaced by allegations that foreign and "incompatible" cultures may have disruptive effects on the integrity of national identities.

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.

In addition, the report says, new forms of discrimination based on disability, HIV/AIDS, age or sexual orientation have become cause for growing concern.

The study shows that many of those 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.

Neglecting to tackle these widening socio-economic inequalities not only amounts to accepting a waste of human talent and resources but could have “disastrous effects on national social cohesion, political stability, and hence growth,” in the years to come, the report warns. The report says outlawing discrimination at work has failed to eliminate the practice. It blames stereotypes and biased institutions that have resisted decades of legal efforts and policy measures undertaken by governments, workers and employers.

Despite these stumbling blocks, the report stresses that laws banning discrimination are indispensable. 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, the study concludes.

Speaking at the launch of the report at UN Headquarters in New York, the chief of the ILO’s Equality and Employment Branch, Lee Swepston, stressed that the agency was trying to promote a concept of decent work.

“I don’t see how it can be argued [that] just because someone is making an income below the poverty level, in terrible conditions and ruining family life…is necessarily better off just because there is employment,” he said, responding to a question whether it was better for immigrants to work under deplorable conditions than to have no job at all. “There has to be balanced action – work and decent conditions,” he said.