Actions of social partners to tackle workplace discrimination

AuthorTina Weber - Catherine Cerf
The mega-trends of globalisation and technological,
demographic and environmental change are impacting
on European societies and shaping socio-economic
developments and the accompanying political debate.
These trends are already impacting – and have the
potential to have even more of a substantial influence –
on developments contributing to the emergence of
discrimination in society and in the workplace. To give
just one example, the last five years have demonstrated
the impact of geopolitical developments on global
migration flows, which in turn have shaped the political
debate in many European countries and contributed to
a rise in Islamophobia and discrimination based on
race, ethnicity and religious beliefs. Without drastic
policy intervention, it is clear that climate change will
trigger significant global migration flows in the future,
triggering distributional issues, which have in the past
been seen to impact on levels of tolerance within
Discrimination in society is unfortunately an enduring
issue, but in recent years, increasingly polarised
political debate, the rise of ‘new nationalism’,
right-wing movements and anti-migration attitudes
have given increased relevance to social partner actions
to tackle discrimination, both in the workplace and in
wider society. While it cannot be denied that
xenophobic sentiments and discriminatory behaviour
are also an issue among employers, workers and
workers’ organisations, arguments in favour of a diverse
society hold sway for ethical and economic reasons.
As mentioned earlier, the Employment Equality
Directive and the Race Equality Directive call on Member
States to ‘take adequate measures to promote dialogue
between the social partners, with a view to fostering
equal treatment’. Both trade unions and employers
arguably have a common interest in promoting a
workplace free from discrimination. Although the first
mission of trade unions is to protect and advance the
interests of their members in the workplace, their role
extends beyond the workplace, not least because
advancements in working conditions affect workers’
living conditions and can thus have spill-over effects
for society as a whole. Similarly, equal treatment and
non-discrimination, both in the workplace and beyond,
is one of the ideological principles underpinning the
work of the trade union movement.
However, it is also recognised by trade unions
themselves that as discrimination is embedded in all
structures of society, so it is within the trade union
movement, leading an increasing number of unions to
target – among other things – right-wing ideas and
racism that can also be found in their own membership.
Discrimination harms companies and societies in
different ways: for instance, it can impact negatively on
workers’ performance and place barriers in the labour
market that can limit access to skills and human capital.
The lack of diversity in an organisation also means that
companies fail to reflect their customers, damaging
economic success. Thus, the so-called ‘business case’
for non-discrimination has also been made.
National social partner initiatives
The evidence shows that the prevalence of workplace
discrimination remains high. This section looks at the
extent to which this issue is being prioritised by social
partners at the national level. It begins by exploring
whether workplace discrimination on different grounds
is on the radar of the social partners. It then goes on to
look at the nature and type of measures introduced by
trade union and employer organisations to address
workplace discrimination.
When considering this information, it is important to
note a number of factors that influenced the extent to
which relevant actions have been identified.
The account is based on the views and initiatives
reported by the Network of Eurofound
Correspondents, based on a review of literature,
web-based resources and interviews with
peak-level social partner organisations.
The information request focused on the views of –
and initiatives implemented by – social partners at
the cross-sectoral-level. This means that, to a
certain extent, the number of workplace-focused
practical actions and agreements is limited, since at
this level the direct link with day-to-day workplace
issues is more limited than at the level of the
sectoral social partners. On the other hand, at peak
level, the level of involvement in the national policy
discourse tends to be greater. Since there is no
cross-industry collective bargaining in many
Member States, this limits the extent to which
collective agreements addressing non-discrimination
issues have been identified. It should be noted that
some experts have highlighted relevant sector-level
collective agreements. These have been included in
the account below, but this should not be
interpreted to mean that such sectoral agreements
do not exist in other countries, as they may simply
not have been reported (if, for example, the sectoral
level was not the focus of the information request).
4 Actions of social partners to
tackle workplace discrimination
It was emphasised in a number of countries that the
focus of social partner action is on promoting
diversity and equal treatment more generally,
rather than addressing individual grounds of
discrimination. As a result, a specific category of
‘general’ initiatives has been identified, taking this
holistic approach and emphasising the importance
of accounting for multiple
In some countries, the level of activity in this area
by cross-industry social partners is based on their
assessment of the quality of existing legislation and
the levels of complaints linked to workplace
discrimination raised through relevant channels.
Where legislation is perceived to be of good quality
and the number of complaints is low, the extent to
which social partners engage with this issue can
also be limited, despite the fact that the number of
formal complaints lodged may not in fact reflect the
actual experience of workplace discrimination. As
previously indicated, a low number of complaints
can be due to several factors: lack of awareness of
the law, reluctance to come forward, fear of
negative repercussions, lack of resources or
practical support to pursue cases, absence of
dissuasive sanctions or the fact that such issues are
addressed directly at workplace level.
The level of activity by cross-sectoral social
partners can also be linked to the overall level of
policy and public debate on the issue, which varies
significantly from country to country and can ebb
and flow according to the legislative agenda, the
existence of high-profile cases or other factors such
as economic and demographic trends (including
Lack of capacity can also play a role, as social
partners tend to focus their attention on what is
considered to be their ‘core business’ (depending
on the Member State, this can be involvement in
collective bargaining and/or the broader
policymaking process).
Based on the answers to the question of whether
the issue of workplace discrimination is high on the
agenda of the cross-industry social partners, it is
difficult to assess clearly whether this applies to
both trade unions and employer organisations.
Therefore, when discussing whether the issue is on
the radar of the social partners, no distinction is
made here between employer and trade union
organisations. It is, however, notable in the
presentation of social partner actions that there is a
significantly higher share of trade union activities in
this area. This could be due to the fact that such
actions are more likely to be implemented at
individual employer level, rather than by employer
Grounds of workplace discrimination on
the radar of cross-sectoral social partners
The box below provides an explanation of how
countries were ranked with regard to the question of
the extent to which the issue is on the radar of the social
Role of social partners in tackling discrimination at work
The issue is considered to be high on the agenda of social partners at national level if the issue is discussed in the
specific context of the need to address workplace discrimination, both at cross-sectoral and other levels.
Workplace discrimination is seen to be on the radar of the social partners ‘to some extent’ if relevant actions are
discussed, but in a different context – for example, the need to integrate older people and people with disabilities
is discussed in the context of labour shortages. The same applies to measures that are only indirectly linked to
addressing workplace discrimination (collective agreements providing for additional leave days for workers with
disabilities or older workers, for example). Other reasons for rating the issue as only addressed ‘to some extent’
the number of initiatives implemented are very limited or have a limited impact (as they are focused on just a
few employers)
emphasis is placed on the issue for a limited period of time, for example in the context of a relevant
legislative initiative, with few actions having taken place since, despite the persistence of instances of
workplace discrimination
Box 1: Criteria used for ranking importance of
workplace discrimination for social partners

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