On May 16, 2011, United States Studies, in cooperation with the No Limits Foundation and the International Labour Organization (ILO) offered a first look at the ILO’s comprehensive new report on global discrimination, "Equality at Work: The Continuing Challenge." The study critically examines thirteen different types of workplace discrimination, ranging from gender to race to HIV/AIDS status, and offers policy solutions for bringing about greater global economic equality. This event featured Guy Ryder and Lisa Wong-Ramesar of the ILO, who had both worked directly on the report, as well as distinguished panelists from labor, business, and government.
Sonya Michel opened the meeting by noting the international scope of workplace inequality and the importance of gathering data to address the problem. Congratulating the ILO on its research, Michel said she hoped the meeting would “bring this important document to public attention [and] lead to the kinds of policies that will eventually bring equality in the workplace for all.” In her introductory remarks, Ann Lewis compared the economic potential of achieving workplace equality with the disadvantages of discrimination. Discrimination not only injures individuals but “shackles the entire economy,” she said, while “greater equality produces more overall prosperity” by allowing all citizens to use their talents productively.
Providing an overview of the report, Lisa Wong-Ramesar chronicled numerous forms of continuing workplace discrimination. In many societies, she said, progressive labor laws, family-friendly policies, and enforcement commissions have proliferated. Yet discrimination not only persists but has been amplified by the global economic downturn, which has caused a lag in funding for implementation of these initiatives. The report, she noted, highlights continuing discrimination based on sex, race, political views, disabilities, age, caste, sexual orientation, and membership in minority groups such as migrant workers (the group hardest hit by the global recession), HIV/AIDS patients, and those with certain lifestyle choices, like smokers.
Discriminatory practices vary in frequency and by country. But the rate of overall sexual harassment complaints has increased, the gender pay gap persists, and “multiple discrimination” has become “the norm rather than the exception,” according to Wong-Ramesar. “Discrimination is deeply rooted and [addressing it] is not necessarily a priority of many countries.” However, she explained, the ILO works country by country, urging member states to continue the fight for equality.
Looking at the report in a historical context, Guy Ryder offered some hopeful reflections. While the persistence of discrimination may suggest that “we’re going backwards and not forward,” he said, “if you take a longer-term historic view, it’s not the case.” Discrimination has been reduced over time as attitudes and laws have changed. Ryder acknowledged that the disinvestment in policy enforcement resulting from the economic downturn could stall progress, but he expressed optimism that the US would join most ILO member nations in ratifying ILO Convention 111, which calls upon states to promote equal employment opportunity and eliminate discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, national extraction, political opinion and social origin, and would take additional positive steps in the future.
Barbara Shailor emphasized the importance of social movements in bringing about national change. Noting employment practice reforms encouraged by the women, youth, and gay rights movements, she pointed to the role of youth unemployment and gender discrimination as factors in the recent Middle East uprisings. The State Department’s efforts to combat discrimination, she said, included releasing an annual human rights report ongoing communications with the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, and deployment of special representatives to oversee progress on global discrimination.
Sara Manzano-Diaz focused on the importance of combating sex discrimination and encouraging the “conscious inclusion of women in the workplace.” Reporting on her bureau’s efforts, she stressed the need to incorporate women into the higher paying jobs of the twenty-first century and introduce workplace flexibility to promote a healthy work-life balance. She pointed out that the wage gap affects American women, not only as a day-to-day issue but as something that had a cumulative effect on their lifetime earnings. The United States, Manzano-Diaz said, has a history of “using governmental actions as a way of addressing discrimination,” and she expressed hope that today’s actions and investments would make things better for working women in the future.
Sarah Fox brought the perspective of organized labor to the table, emphasizing unions’ role in addressing discrimination. In recent years, according to Fox, “labor movements have been at the forefront of the effort to promote fairness in the workplace.” They achieve this mainly through the use of collective bargaining, which, Fox noted, was cheaper than litigation and was particularly important in tough economic times, when government regulations tend to diminish.
Speaking as both a lawyer and an advocate, Marcia Greenberger lauded the ILO for identifying the multiple forms of discrimination at work. She also noted that it was essential to have accurate data collection that is disaggregated by subpopulations. In order for employers to be made aware of their discriminatory practices and for employees to achieve solidarity, “government and employers need to be doing a better job in making sure that key data is able to be discussed and made public in appropriate ways,” said Greenberger. She also stressed that “it takes penalties as well as carrots to make change,” and encouraged adequate sanctions for discrimination along with cooperation and coalitions.
Ronnie Goldberg expounded on the practical benefits of workplace equality. “Companies,” she said, “are increasingly coming to realize that there is a strong business and economic case for diversity and anti-discrimination.” Beyond moral or legal incentives, equality and diversity allow for better business practices through greater utilization of talent and wider market appeal. Goldberg mentioned the importance of knowledge-sharing, highlighting the ILO’s formation of a global network to address disability discrimination.
In response to questions from the audience, panelists touched on other labor issues. Discussing low-wage workers hired by contractors, they offered assurances that the matter was being taken seriously by public officials and policymakers. Panelists also offered their thoughts on the possibility of the United States ratifying ILO convention 111, an action many panelists as well as audience members supported. According to Goldberg, U.S. law already exceeds the requirements of the convention, which implies that unions, businesses, and the U.S. government are in agreement over the terms of ratification.
By: Avram Billig, Intern, Emily Malkin, and Sonya Michel
- Senior Scholar
- Executive Director of the Standards and Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Sector, International Labor Organization
- Program to Promote the Fundamental Principles and Rights, International Labor Organization
- U.S Department of State
- Director of the Women’s Bureau, Department of Labor
- Chief Policy Officer, United States Council for International Business
- Founder and Co-President, National Women's Law Center