Global economic crisis opens up new space for discrimination at work, ILO says

GENEVA (ILO News) – In the new Global Report on Equality at Work 2011, the International Labour Office (ILO) notes that in spite of continuous positive advances in anti-discrimination legislation, the global economic and social crisis has led to a higher risk of discrimination against certain groups such as migrant labour.

“Economically adverse times are a breeding ground for discrimination at work and in society more broadly. We see this with the rise of populist solutions”, said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia, adding that “this threatens painstaking achievements of several decades”.

The report, entitled Equality at work: The continuing challenge, cites equality bodies which receive increased numbers of complaints, showing that workplace discrimination has become more varied, and discrimination on multiple grounds is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

It also warns against a tendency during economic downturns to give lower priority to anti-discrimination policies and workers’ rights in practice. “Austerity measures and cutbacks in the budget of labour administrations and inspection services, and in funds available to specialized bodies dealing with non-discrimination and equality, can seriously compromise the ability of existing institutions to prevent the economic crisis from generating more discrimination and more inequalities”, the report says.

According to the report, the lack of reliable data in this context makes it difficult to assess the exact impact of these measures. It therefore calls on governments to put into place human, technical and financial resources to improve data collection on discrimination at the national level.

Types of discrimination

The report also notes that new forms of discrimination at work arise while the old challenges remain at best only partially answered. Among the key findings of the report:

  • Significant progress has been made in recent decades in advancing gender equality in the world of work. However, the gender pay gap still exists, with women’s wages being on average 70-90 per cent of men’s. While flexible arrangements of working schedules are gradually being introduced as an element of more family-friendly policies, discrimination related to pregnancy and maternity is still common.
  • Sexual harassment is a significant problem in workplaces. Young, financially dependent, single or divorced women, and migrants are most vulnerable, while men who experience harassment tend to be young, gay or members of ethnic or racial minorities.
  • Combating racism is as relevant today as it ever was. Barriers impeding equal access to the labour market still need to be dismantled, particularly for people of African and Asian descent, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, and above all women in these groups.
  • Migrant workers face widespread discrimination in access to employment, and many encounter discrimination when employed, including access to social insurance programmes.
  • Rising numbers of women and men experience discrimination on religious grounds, while discrimination on the basis of political opinion tends to take place in the public sector, where loyalty to the policies of authorities in power can be a factor in access to employment.
  • Work-related discrimination continues to exist for many of the world’s 650 million persons with disabilities as their low employment rate reveals.
  • Persons with HIV/AIDS can suffer discrimination through mandatory testing policies, or testing under conditions which are not genuinely voluntary or confidential.
  • In the European Union, a total of 64 per cent of those surveyed expected that the economic crisis would lead to more age discrimination in the labour market.
  • In a limited number of industrialized countries, discrimination based on lifestyle has emerged as a topical issue, especially in relation to smoking and obesity.

The ILO response

The Global Report recommends a series of steps to combat discrimination. These include four priority areas, including the promotion of the universal ratification and application of the two fundamental ILO Conventions on equality and non-discrimination; the development and sharing of knowledge on the elimination of discrimination in employment and occupation; development of the institutional capacity of ILO constituents to more effectively implement the fundamental right of non-discrimination at work; and strengthening of international partnerships with major actors on equality.

Ratifications of the two fundamental ILO Conventions in this area – the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100), and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111) – stand at 168 and 169 respectively, out of a total of 183 ILO member States. When ratification levels are over 90 per cent, the target of universal ratification is attainable, the report says.

“The fundamental right of non-discrimination in employment and occupation for all women and men is part and parcel of decent work policies for sustainable and balanced economic growth and fairer societies,” Mr. Somavia says. “The right response is to combine policies for economic growth with policies for employment, social protection and rights at work, enabling governments, social partners and civil society to work together, including changing attitudes through education”.

The Report is part of a series of studies issued annually on core ILO labour standards and was prepared under the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work adopted by the International Labour Conference in 1998.

The Declaration focuses on four fundamental principles – freedom of association, the elimination of child labour, the elimination of forced labour and discrimination.