Trade unions must do more to tackle racial discrimination in Europe’s job market

Today we are celebrating the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Unfortunately, from an anti-discrimination and equality perspective, there is not much to celebrate.

It will not come as a surprise that for Black people, Roma, Muslims and migrants from non-EU countries living in Europe, discrimination continues to be a major obstacle when looking for a job and even once in employment.

For women with a minority or migrant background, it’s even worse. This is evident in the European Network Against Racism (ENAR)’s latest Shadow Report on racism and discrimination in employment in Europe.

The ongoing financial and economic crisis which Europe has been facing for the last six years, coupled with the lack of social investment, has not made the situation any better.

It has worsened discrimination against minorities and migrants and increased the employment gap between the latter and the majority population.

African migrants in Spain are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to people from the majority population.

In Finland and Belgium, unemployment rates are three times higher for people born outside the EU than for the native-born population – irrespective of their qualifications.

Migrants and minorities face discrimination when they’re applying for jobs, for instance when the selection is on the basis of names and addresses or when recruitment agencies adopt discriminatory practices.

For example, in the United Kingdom, people with foreign sounding names are a third less likely to be shortlisted for jobs than people with white British sounding names.

Even once they are in a job, ethnic and religious minorities continue to face unequal treatment. Lower wages, glass ceilings, precarious and difficult working conditions, harassment, abuse and dismissals are just some of its manifestations.

In Hungary for instance, wages paid to Roma are lower than the Hungarian minimum wage. In Austria, people with a Turkish background earn 20 per cent less that their Austrian colleagues without a migrant background. In Poland, migrant workers are often forced to work overtime under the threat of dismissal.

These discriminatory practices occur despite the existence of EU legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment.

Regrettably, these laws are not always as efficient as they should be. As a result, many victims of discrimination are left unprotected.


Trade unions

The picture is not all bleak, however. Efforts are being made by institutions and organisations – including trade unions – to tackle this reality.

Trade union best practices include: initiatives to raise awareness regarding discrimination and racism in employment; training for union members on discrimination; adoption of diversity policies in the frame of social dialogue; and initiatives focusing on migrants.

For instance, BECTU, the media and entertainment union in the UK, has been holding networking events for their members, enabling them to meet and make proposals to company representatives.

Since 2003 they have set up over 5,400 individual personal contacts between approximately 1,800 black and minority ethnic professionals and 730 top film and broadcasting executives.

However, this remains a niche development, far from providing solutions to the majority of ethnic minority workers and migrants left on the side of the road of wealth generation.

In addition, in some countries, the level of involvement of trade unions in combating racial discrimination is low, including in the Czech Republic, Finland, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands and Poland.

It is vital that trade unions take ethnic and religious minority workers into account in their work, by developing internal strategies to support delegates in addressing discrimination within trade union structures and affiliates, for example, and in supporting victims of discrimination in the workplace.

It would be timely to reflect with trade unions on why many of them have faced internal resistance to addressing racism and related discrimination in their constituencies.

Analysts have highlighted the evolution of different curves within the labour market, the broader economy and the internal life of trade unions which could explain part of the difficulty trade unions have had in addressing racial inequality at the same level as gender or age inequality.

The rise of identity politics, and corollary racist discourses and policies in society, have coincided with the hegemonic rise of neo-liberal policies which have put a heavy strain on trade unions.

In northern Europe, during the period of economic boom that followed the Second World War, trade unions were much more involved in supporting migrant workers at a time when the issue of racial and religious discrimination in employment was not really on the agenda.

And it’s precisely when those issues increasingly came to the fore that trade unions were forced to go on the defensive with regard to the protection of workers.

While anti-discrimination was mainstreamed in European policy approaches, trade unions were in a more difficult position to push for this agenda internally as it is easier to push for accommodating different workers’ needs in a time of nearly full employment, than when unemployment rates are soaring to around 20 per cent of the working age population.

As a result, trade unions have not been in a strong position to put pressure on employers and policy makers to face their responsibilities in opening up European workforces to diversity.


Political courage

Still, it is not the responsibility of civil society alone to uphold equality.

States across Europe need to show political courage to tackle discrimination in employment.

For instance, they should establish standards on labour inspection, geared towards improving the detection of ethnic and religious discrimination in the workplace, and ensure that labour market regulations respect the “equal status and equal pay for equal work” principle and that all workers (nationals, EU migrants and non-EU migrants) enjoy equal treatment.

It’s time politicians take discrimination seriously, especially in view of the upcoming European elections.

Indeed, unemployment remains the main concern of Europeans and access to quality work will be a high priority among voters – including those with a minority or migrant background, who make up about 12 per cent of the European population.

Politicians should realise that allowing millions of people to be discriminated and excluded from jobs results in a huge waste of talents and skills, ultimately affecting the well-being of all people living in Europe.

Trade unions, in light of their long tradition of fighting for equality in employment and capacity for mobilization, also have a key role to play in making politicians understand that 60 million ethnically diverse Europeans deserve justice and jobs, together with their majority population comrades.