Despite major advances in fighting discrimination at work, mounting inequalities in income and opportunities and significant and persistent forms of workplace discrimination are causing growing concern, according to a new report by the International Labour Office (ILO). In its most comprehensive report on discrimination to date, the ILO's Equality at work: Tackling the challenges (Note 1) provides a global picture of job-related discrimination, citing both progress and failures in the struggle to fight discrimination ranging from traditional forms such as sex, race or religion, to newer forms based on age, sexual orientation, HIV/AIDS status and disability.
"The global picture of the struggle to overcome discrimination shows a mixture of major advances and failures", the ILO report says, citing progress since its first edition issued four years ago (See "Time for Equality at work", ILO 2003) and noting that most of the ILO's 180 member States have ratified its two core conventions on discrimination and are thus committed to creating legislation and policies against discrimination.
A major theme of the Report is the persistence of gender gaps in employment and pay and the need for integrated policies addressing sex discrimination in remuneration and occupational segregation by sex, while reconciling work and family responsibilities. For example, the report states that throughout the EU, the difference in average gross hourly earnings between women and men across the economy throughout all establishments has remained high at 15 per cent.
Female labour force participation rates continued to rise significantly, currently at 56.6 per cent, thus narrowing the worldwide gender gap in labour participation rates. However, the report states, progress has been uneven with North America at 71.1 per cent, 62 per cent in the European Union, East Asia and the Pacific at 61.2 per cent and the Middle East and North Africa at 32 per cent.
A key measure of women's improvement is the availability of good-quality jobs for women in legislative, senior official or managerial (LSOM) positions with higher participation rates indicating a reduction of discriminatory barriers. Women still represent a distinct minority in such positions throughout the world, holding only 28.3 per cent of these senior jobs. There is uneven progress across the regions with North America at 41.2 per cent, Latin America and the Caribbean at 35 per cent and the European Union at 30.6 per cent. This indicator has seen the most growth in South Asia, where it has nearly doubled in nine years, however women in this region still hold the lowest share of these jobs at 8.6 per cent.
Noting that the efforts by ILO member States to stamp out workplace discrimination have moved forward significantly, the report says, "The condemnation of discrimination in employment and occupation is today almost universal, as is the political commitment to tackle it." It says that as of 2007, nine out of 10 ILO member States had ratified the two core Conventions on discrimination – the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100) and the Discrimination (Employment and occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111) – thereby committing to creating legislation and policies that prevent discrimination (Note 2).
Nevertheless, it also says the need to combat discrimination at work is more urgent than it was four years ago "in the face of a world that appears increasingly unequal, insecure and unsafe", adding that "significant and persistent inequalities in income, assets and opportunities dilute the effectiveness of any action aimed at combating discrimination. This may lead to political instability and social upheaval, which upset investment and economic growth".
Successes and failures
The report says progress on the legal and institutional fronts in many countries has also been noteworthy and non-discrimination and equality provisions feature in labour codes that have recently been adopted or reformed. It cites new initiatives such as the ILO Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS in the world of work that have revolutionized the public and private response to AIDS in the workplace. It notes that overall there has been a tendency towards greater institutional commitment to non-discrimination and equality.
Nevertheless, it also says "many shortcomings persist" adding law enforcement remains weak while in many countries offices that have been created to deal with discrimination aren't properly staffed or funded. While anti-discrimination efforts are increasing in the formal economy, a growing informal economy represents a vast and moving target for public policies seeking to remove obstacles preventing hundreds of millions of people from enjoying equal opportunities at work, according to the report.
The report also provides many examples of discrimination on the basis of race and religion, social origin, caste or indigenousness, as well as against migrant workers. And it warns of the consequences of discrimination against younger and older workers, as well as inequalities based on sexual orientation, HIV/AIDS status, or a person's disability.
With approximately 470 million people with disabilities of working age, there is a growing concern regarding discrimination against persons with disabilities. The report states that the likelihood of a person with a disability finding a job decreases as the level of disability increases. In Europe, a person aged between 16 and 64 has a 66 per cent chance of finding a job. This rate falls to 47 per cent for a moderately disabled person and 25 per cent for a person with a severe disability.
These barriers to equality can prevent societies from realizing the full potential of today's globalized economy. The promotion of equal opportunities for decent work for all women and men, irrespective of race, religion, disability, age or sexual orientation, is one of the means to advance in this direction, the report says.
A recent development is the emergence of practices that penalize persons with "a genetic predisposition to developing certain diseases or those who have lifestyles considered unhealthy". The rapid developments in genetics and related new technologies have made it easier to obtain information on genetic status. The Report states that genetic screening has important implications for the workplace, where, for example, employers might discriminate against employees whose genetic status shows a predisposition to developing a certain disease in the future. Genetic discrimination at the workplace has been proven and successfully contested in several courts around the world.
The Global Report recommends a series of steps to combat discrimination and achieve the ILO's proposed action plan. These include promoting gender equality through more integrated and better-coordinated global action; mainstreaming non-discrimination and equality into ILO Decent Work Country Programmes taking into account specific needs of different groups; enacting better laws and promoting better enforcement; more effective non-regulatory initiatives such as government purchasing, and lending and investment policies; and helping workers and employers make equality a reality at the workplace through mechanisms such as collective bargaining agreements and codes of conduct.
The Report is part of a series of studies issued annually on core ILO labour issues 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.
Note 1 - Equality at work: Tackling the challenges, Global Report under the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, International Labour Conference, 96th Session 2007, International Labour Office, Geneva. This Report may also be consulted on the ILO Internet site (www.ilo.org/declaration). ISBN 978-92-2-118130-9, ISSN 0074-6681.
Note 2 - For the most recent list of ratifications of these and other ILO Conventions, see http://www.ilo.org/public/english/standards/norm/index.htm.