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World: Labor Report Finds Discrimination Becoming More Subtle

  • Kathleen Moore

Millions of people all over the world are facing discrimination at work. It deprives women, ethnic and religious minorities, and migrants of equal pay or jobs. While more blatant types of discrimination may be fading, subtler forms are popping up, like pre-employment testing for HIV and AIDS. Those are the findings of the first global report on the problem by the International Labor Organization, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 13 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Dean was working at a large financial institution in the late 1990s when he was diagnosed as being HIV-positive. He told only his manager, but when he returned to work after taking some time off, the news had spread.

"It wasn't kept confidential, which is a really big issue when someone is diagnosed [HIV] positive. It's the kind of information you give out carefully, and you don't want it broadcast, given the attitudes that people have to AIDS and the stigma around it. That was upsetting for me. I took [sick leave] to decide what I wanted to do, and then my employer basically gave me an ultimatum to return to work or they would dismiss me," Dean said.

Dean lost his job -- a clear example, he claims, of workplace discrimination. He maintains that he would have been treated more fairly if he had been diagnosed with cancer or another, more socially acceptable, illness. According to the first global report on the problem, cases like Dean's are common all over the world.

The report, by the International Labor Organization (ILO), says discrimination at work is costing millions of people equal pay or even jobs. It says the most common targets are women, ethnic or religious minorities, or migrants.

The authors say that some of the more blatant forms of discrimination are fading, but that other, subtler forms are springing up -- like pre-employment testing for HIV.

"I think that basically we have new ways of people dealing with the same old forms of discrimination," says Zafar Shaheed, the report's supervising editor. "For instance, racial discrimination is now often couched in terms of what the enterprise requires, putting that into job descriptions in more subtle forms, rather than saying I want a young white woman as a secretary. One could say I would rather have a presentable type of person. Hidden in that is that you're not looking for an older, darker woman, for instance."

That kind of thing could be hard to prove, of course. Presentable may just mean presentable.

It's not necessarily discriminatory for an employer to ask an applicant about any disabilities, which might include his or her HIV status. But the ILO says it is discriminatory to treat that applicant any less favorably because of a disability.

"Every employer has the right to make sure they know what sort of employee they're getting," Shaheed says. "I think what is discriminatory is that if people have equal qualifications and that you don't give that other [disabled or HIV-positive] person a chance."

Examples in the report show discrimination can take many forms.

In France, some vocational training institutions say they have had a hard time convincing companies to accept trainees of North African descent.

The ILO says Latvia's language laws have restricted the employment opportunities available to the large number of ethnic Russians in the country.

Discrimination against older people is common, too, especially in countries where high unemployment has intensified competition for jobs of all kinds. The report cites a study in Estonia showing employers preferred young women under 30 as their secretaries and sales assistants.

The authors say discrimination won't go away on its own, and the market won't solve it either. The ILO's two main conventions against discrimination and promoting equal pay have been ratified by 158 of the organization's 175 member countries -- yet discrimination is still rampant.

So what can be done?

One option is affirmative action -- where employers give certain individuals special consideration because they are from groups that have typically faced discrimination. But while many people have benefited from such policies, affirmative action is controversial.

The ILO says governments could do more to show employers that ending discrimination is good for them, too -- their studies show productivity rose in Australian companies that followed strict equal opportunity policies.

Dean, the HIV-positive stockbroker, says he regrets not challenging his employer at the time.

"But I was in such a vulnerable position or state of mind at the time that I didn't even pursue that," he says. "I was thrown out and didn't challenge it, which I regret now. But there's not a lot I can do about it."

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