21st Jan 2021

Dialogue not enough to prevent racism in the workplace

  • The number of companies that have not yet put in place a diversity policy is still too high, says Brussels (Photo: European Commission)

Promoting tolerance and convincing companies of the advantages of ethnically diverse personnel is not enough to prevent discrimination within European workplaces, a debate panel on migration and work has stated, asking for more powerful legal tools and sanctions against racist practices within enterprises.

"The number of companies that have not yet put in place a diversity policy is still too high," EU employment commissioner Vladimir Spidla told a conference about the challenges and opportunities posed by an ever more multicultural work environment, held in Brussels on Wednesday (4 June).

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The commissioner said that companies have to be convinced to carry out policies that promote integration, not only to make them comply with anti-discrimination laws, but for economic reasons as well.

"Diversity encourages efficiency and thus the productivity of a company. Diversity can give a company an additional impetus and enable it to reach out to new segments of the market."

"Sometimes companies do not know how to encourage diversity because they do not how to qualify or quantify positive effects of it, nor can they define what discrimination or discriminatory behaviour really is," the commissioner explained.

Mr Spidla announced that in order to help European enterprises the commission had carried out a series of workshops all over Europe for companies to learn about diversity in practice, and that his institution would also work closely with trade unions on the issue.

The debate, organised by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) together with the European Commission under the framework of the EU's "Year of Intercultural Dialogue", was the fourth of six planned gatherings throughout 2008, each targeting different aspects of dialogue between European peoples.

When dialogue fails

Other speakers on the podium were firm on the need for more than just dialogue and anti-discrimination workshops. They want stronger and better law enforcement against companies who do not stick to the rules.

"If companies do not learn to respond to certain legal provisions, than there has to be sanctions. If certain people are not considered human beings with the right to enjoy the same rights as anybody else in their workplace, then this is the only way to deal with this," said Mr Chibo Onyeji, the vice-president of ENAR and speaker at the conference.

He urged the commission to speed up efforts to win approval from all EU countries for an exhaustive - 'horizontal' anti-discrimination directive - a legally binding piece of legislation - that covers all grounds of discrimination, and not limit it to the least controversial of grounds for discrimination.

The commission has expressed concerns that such a horizontal directive would not be supported by all capitals, with some objecting to including age and sexual orientation in the text.

In addition, European business leaders have raised concern about the possible costs resulting from legal proceedings in the sensitive area.

The commission has elaborated on an idea to present two separate legislative texts: one that will deliver protection on the grounds of disability, and another for the other discrimination criteria, including sexual orientation, religion and age.

Mr Onyeji from ENAR told EUobserver about the danger of horse-trading over the scope of the anti-discrimination piece, and splitting discrimination into smaller parts.

"We know out of our own experience that if you get a directive through, it will take ages before they come around to do the next part," he sighed.

Discrimination - a management problem?

Benoit van Grieken, the manager for corporate social responsibility with temporary work agency Randstad Belgium, told the audience that although his company always tried to reason with employers who objected to receiving immigrants from the agency, it would report companies guilty of illegal discrimination to the Belgian employment ministry.

"From there, the authorities can decide on whether to take the company before a labour court or similar," Mr van Grieken said.

A representative for the Association of Swedish Trade Unions (LO) remarked that it seemed discrimination in the eyes of some policy makers and companies was a mere matter of company leadership.

"You make it sound like discrimination is a question of poor management, and not about fundamental, legal rights, Bo Westas said.

"Most incidents of discrimination are those between the management and the individual worker, and therefore it is important that he or she can call upon a third party - and strong legal rights - to find support," he added.

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