Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion

What is the EU doing and why?

How does the EU prevent discrimination at work?

Equality is an essential value of the EU and the Union has some of the most extensive anti-discrimination laws in the world.

The principle of equality has existed since the EU’s earliest days, with the aim of ensuring fair competition and equal treatment at work. The Treaty of Rome of 1957 required equal pay between men and women for the same work or work of equal value. The first gender equality Directives were agreed in the 1970s.

The EU’s Treaty of Amsterdam, signed in 1997, is a founding text for furthering the fight against discrimination in Europe. It lists five areas of discrimination, along with sex discrimination, where the EU can act: racial and ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, sexual orientation, and age.

The EU’s measures against discrimination

Over the years, the EU has enacted many laws against discrimination. They ban discrimination on the grounds of sex, age, religion or belief, racial or ethnic origin, disability or sexual orientation.

This EU legislative framework implements the principle of equal treatment, providing for example:

  • protection from unequal treatment when applying for a job
  • protection at the workplace from abuse and harassment, including bullying, name-calling or jokes at their expense
  • protection if any career advancement or training is blocked because of discrimination.
  • protection for pregnant workers and breastfeeding mothers, including rights to maternity leave and parental leave

The key legislation

  • The Employment Equality Directive of 2000 bans discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.
  • The Equal Pay Directive of 1975 says that sex discrimination in respect of all aspects of pay should be eliminated.
  • Sex discrimination is also covered by the Gender Equality Directives of 1979 (in relation to social security), 2006 (in relation to employment and occupation), 2010 (for the self-employed), 2010 (parental leave, to be replaced later in 2019 by a work-life balance Directive)
  • The Race Equality Directive of 2000 bans discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin in several walks of life, including work, education and social services.

However, there are situations where different treatment on the basis of one of these prohibited grounds may be justified under strict conditions. These situations are listed in the EU Directives. For example, it may be possible to justify age discrimination to promote employment of young workers if a national rule obliges workers to retire when they reach the pensionable age.

They apply to discrimination both on the basis of real characteristics and of perceptions. All these EU laws apply to individuals, businesses of any sizes, associations, local authorities, the government and all other organisations in both the public and private sector.

Why does the EU take these measures?

Surveys show that around one in eight Europeans consider themselves part of a group at risk of discrimination because they are in a racial or ethnic minority, have a disability, or because of their sex, sexual orientation, age, or their religion and belief. Discrimination, attacks against minorities and hate speech unfortunately remain a daily reality in the European Union.

The EU’s many protections are the right thing to do: they protect human rights and represent important values. They also make sense from an economic perspective. The many groups protected under the EU’s discrimination legislation often represent an untapped source of skills and talent. They can contribute to the overall diversity, creativity and morale in the workplace. They can also boost a company’s image among its staff, in the community, and among customers.

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