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Address by Ms. Kyung-wha Kang, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to the IV Equality Summit: Equality and Diversity in Employment, 15-16 November 2010- Plaza and Sheraton Hotel (Brussels)

Madam Deputy Prime Minister,
Madam Vice President of the European Commission,
Distinguished Delegates,  Colleagues and friends,

I am very greatly honoured to participate in the 4th European Union Equality Summit, under the Presidency of Belgium, devoted this year to “Equality and Diversity in Employment”, a theme entailing key human rights considerations.

The principles of non-discrimination and equality before the law and equal protection of the law are at the heart of the United Nations’ goals. They are also at the core of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as of all subsequent human rights law.  Since its very beginning, the United Nations has sought to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion. The fundamental principle of non-discrimination is a cornerstone of the sustained outreach effort for us at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  We believe that the credibility of every country in claiming its commitment to better protection against discrimination and the achievement of equality depends substantially on giving real effect to its stated pledges.

The European Union and its Member States have a long history of combating discrimination and of promoting the principle of equal treatment in employment. At the European level, this has been the case since the beginning of the European Community, above all in relation to equal treatment of men and women. However, some Member States have already had comprehensive equality legislation for other grounds of discrimination, such as race or disability, for several decades. Since the Treaty of Amsterdam, such comprehensive protection on the grounds of race, disability, age, religion and sexual orientation has been elevated to the European level. It has now been reinforced with the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

I would like to congratulate the European Union on this progress and achievement at the regional level. This effort should always strengthen EU Member States’ commitment to the already substantive legally binding instruments at the international level.

In the current times of economic crisis, the principles of non-discrimination and other human rights priorities cannot be set aside, waiting for fairer weather. No setbacks should be allowed. On the contrary, in times of such economic hardship, maintaining the emphasis on non-discrimination is more relevant than ever because members of the most disadvantaged and stigmatised groups risk suffering the most: being the first to lose their jobs and the last to regain them. Therefore, it is of critical importance that the drive to achieve effective and full equality for all does not lose its momentum.

This applies, of course, to protection from discrimination in other areas of life such as access to education, health care, social protection or access to goods and services, including housing, which are intrinsically linked to employment opportunities and employment conditions. We at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights are therefore following with great interest the debates concerning the European Commission’s proposal for a new directive which would cover all these areas for those discrimination grounds where such protection is not yet guaranteed. We encourage the European Union to make the important step of adopting such legislation, which would make its non-discrimination framework truly comprehensive and remove all traces of a perceived hierarchy of discrimination grounds.

Discrimination when looking for work and at work often emerges as one of the most significant areas of discriminatory treatment, in particular when the employees or the job seekers are women, migrants, persons with disabilities, persons with HIV/AIDS or persons belonging to historically disadvantaged ethnic groups such as the Roma.

The theme of our summit today cannot be disconnected from the global achievements in the Durban Review Conference, held in Geneva in April 2009, which examined progress that States have made since the 2001 World Conference against Racism in overcoming some of the most abhorrent forms of discrimination. Undoubtedly, the greatest accomplishment of the Review Conference was the reinvigorated commitment of States to the non-discrimination agenda.

It is probably one of the less known outcomes of the Review Conference that it also explicitly welcomed preventative initiatives to tackle discrimination in employment.  This includes programmes for training and counselling, in particular of excluded persons belonging to minorities, to help them in the labour market, as well as programmes for employers to combat discrimination or to raise cultural awareness. The Review Conference urged states to bolster measures for eliminating barriers and to broaden access to opportunities for greater participation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to point out that one of the minorities mentioned in the outcome of the Review Conference are the Roma, a marginalized minority whose precarious conditions in many parts of Europe have increasingly been the focus of our Office’s attention.  The structural discrimination against many Roma affecting the enjoyment of rights which other Europeans can take for granted, above all economic, social and cultural rights, represents a clear challenge for contemporary Europe.

Despite the efforts made by the European Union and some of its Member States over the last years, many Roma across Europe continue to experience a vicious circle of prejudice, stigmatization and social exclusion. Repressive and punitive policies such as forced evictions or expulsions, which are carried out mostly, but not exclusively, by local authorities, or placement of Roma in ghetto-like settlements without access to labour markets and under strict police surveillance, can only perpetuate this vicious circle.

The level of discrimination encountered by the Roma in the area of employment appears to be particularly high. The European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey 2009 (EU – MIDIS) carried out by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), indicated that on average 38% of Roma seeking a job indicated that they were discriminated against at least twice in the 12 months preceding the survey. In the same survey, of those Roma who said they were active in the labour market, 19% indicated that they had been discriminated against at work in the last 12 months.

Our Office has some direct experience in turning opportunities for individuals from excluded groups in society into effective empowerment and benefits for society as a whole. Please allow me to share a story with you: when we started our minority fellowship program in OHCHR Geneva, one of our first fellows in 2006 was a young Romani woman from Hungary. She shared with us her experiences at work where she faced daily discrimination just because of her ethnic origin which, as she said, was the main cause for her employer in Budapest to decide to discontinue her contract. Following her fellowship, she carried out a consultancy for the Office and her contribution has been remarkable. I'm proud to announce that today Dr. Rita Izsák is Chief of Staff in the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice of Hungary and is able to continue, from this high-level governmental position, to promote sound inclusion and empowerment policies in the fight against discrimination and prejudice.

In fact, ethnic minority women often encounter what is known as “double” or “multiple” discrimination. This is a situation also encountered by many migrant women, particularly those who are employed as domestic workers. The International Labour Organization in June 2010 met to discuss for the first time the possibility to produce new international labour standard for domestic workers, however further protection needs to be assured. For this reason our Regional Office for Europe devoted one of its conferences this year to highlighting not just the lack of efficient legal protection against individual abuse, but also the exclusion of these migrant domestic workers from access to rights which other categories of workers enjoy. This has also been the main theme of a study for the Special Rapporteur on the Contemporary Forms of Slavery and a recurrent theme of concern for the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. Let us not be mistaken – the fact that highly developed European societies have been tolerating this situation so long is itself a sign of a dismissive or even discriminatory attitude to this category of workers, both on grounds of their gender and on grounds of their ethnic origin. However, inequalities are not confined to women of different ethnic background. Although this event is not explicitly dedicated to gender equality, it seems appropriate at least to recall that in reality, there is still a gender pay gap, and sometimes even a gap in the legal protection afforded to men and women in the workplace. Many women are penalized in the workplace simply because they try to balance a career with family life, a fact that recently captured the attention of EU public opinion in the context of a vote in the European Parliament for a proposal to extend maternity leave at full pay for 20 weeks.

In times of economic turmoil this sort of initiative is bound to stir some anxiety, in particular in the business sector. What is important is the aim of these proposals in aligning all EU citizens under the same rights and closing the gap between international standards and reality on the ground thereby setting the basis for a future enjoyment of equal opportunities.

Discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity continues to be a reality for many acceding to the job market and at the workplace. The path to eradicate this type of discrimination is not one of establishing new rights or special rights for people based on their sexual orientation. It is about recognizing and closing gaps in the existing protection frameworks. Europe is in the lead in legislation, but the road is still a long one in changing attitudes and perceptions in particular in the area of employment. A greater focus should be placed on education and implementation of the existing legislative frameworks. Two recent examples of this are the LGBT History Month in schools in the United Kingdom or the European football player’s campaign targeting football supporters and school-age children towards the eradication of homophobia. Attitudes will not change overnight. The prejudices are too deeply rooted. However, chances will be greater for managers, workmates and class mates who have followed the Sunday matches and the History Month to think twice before continuing with homophobic attitudes and other sexual orientation related bulling.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Protecting human rights in the context of migration is a key priority for our Office. The challenges that non-nationals face in access to employment are numerous and deeply rooted in discriminatory attitudes and perceptions. Let me however focus today on an issue which has drawn the attention of the Global Migration Group (GMG) composed of twelve UN Agencies and Programmes, the World Bank and IOM, presently under the chairmanship of our High Commissioner, to promote the wider application of all relevant international standards relating to migration, and to encourage the adoption of more coherent, comprehensive and better coordinated approaches to the issue of international migration. On 30 September the GMG issued a statement expressing deep concern about the human rights of migrants in an irregular situation around the globe.

These individuals are often denied even the most basic labor protections, due process guarantees, personal security, and healthcare even when conducting the same work in the same workplace as peer-workers but with other work and migration status. Access to decent and productive work for all persons – both citizens and non-citizens – is central to their human development and facilitates their effective integration in countries in which they live and work.

The promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities is recognized by our Office as being among the key issues which need to be addressed in contemporary Europe. It is, of course, an issue which is particularly topical in the context of the signing and ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by individual European countries as well as by the European Union. This underscores the relevance of international human rights standards in the European context. The efforts should concentrate on giving full effect to the innovative provisions of the Convention, as well as its Optional Protocol in order to ensure that the ‘paradigm shift’ brought by the Convention becomes a reality.

We are still far from that goal. Access to employment for persons with disabilities as well as opportunities at work for career development are critical challenges also in Europe. Not only States but also the private sector has a significant role to play in promoting and ensuring/ protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, in particular in the area of access to employment and opportunities at work.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Discrimination in all its forms and manifestations undermine our shared goal of creating societies of equal rights and freedoms for all. And because legislation itself does not change situations overnight, it is perhaps not surprising that eradication has proven to be very difficult, particularly when it is subtle, more corrosive and more resilient.

Complacency regarding discrimination continues to lead to the suffering of hundreds of millions of people around the world, including within the borders of the European Union, in many areas of daily life, including in the world of work. This not only violates a most basic human right, but has wider social and economic consequences.

This event provides an excellent opportunity to develop stronger and more effective ways of working against all forms of discrimination, and to promote equal rights and opportunities for all in the EU when looking for work as well as at work, particularly against the backdrop of the economic problems which continue affecting many Europeans, and have severe impacts on the traditionally most excluded parts of societies.

The recently established OHCHR Regional Office for Europe in Brussels stands ready to provide cooperation to the relevant bodies of the European Union. Let us work together on addressing these challenges.

I would like to thank you for your attention and wish you a most fruitful summit.


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