ILO: Global Economic Downturn Opens Space for Workplace Discrimination

The report cites equality groups that have received increased numbers of complaints. It also warns against a tendency during economic downturns to give lower priority to anti-discrimination policies and workers’ rights in practice.

In the new Global Report on Equality at Work 2011, the International Labor Office (ILO) notes that in spite of continuous positive advances in anti-discrimination legislation, the global economic downturn has led to a higher risk of discrimination against certain groups, such as migrant labor.

“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.

The report, entitled “Equality at work: The continuing challenge,” cites equality groups that have received increased numbers of complaints. The report 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 labor 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.

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 workplace. However, the gender pay gap still exists, with women’s wages being on average 70-90 percent 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.
  • Migrant workers face widespread discrimination in access to employment, and many encounter discrimination when employed, including access to social insurance programs.
  • Work-related discrimination continues to exist for many of the world’s 650 million people with disabilities as their low employment rate reveals.
  • People with HIV/AIDS can suffer discrimination through mandatory testing policies, or testing under conditions which are not genuinely voluntary or confidential.
  • 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 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,” Somavia said. “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.”

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