What is Discrimination in Employment and Occupation?

Discrimination in employment and occupation “occurs when a person is treated less favourably than others because of characteristics that are not related to the person’s competencies or the inherent requirements of the job”, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Grounds of discrimination formally prohibited under ILO Convention No.111 include race, colour, sex, religion, political or other opinion, national extraction or social origin. This list is not closed and can also include other grounds such as, for example, HIV/AIDS, age, disability, family responsibilities, sexual orientation, trade union membership or activities, language, etc.

Companies seeking to counter discrimination should promote strong diversity and inclusion in the workplace throughout their operations and supply chains. Qualifications, skills and experience should be the basis for the recruitment, placement, training and advancement of business enterprises’ employees at all levels. Businesses should develop anti-discrimination policies and procedures to protect workers in their employment or employed by their business partners from discrimination.

It should be noted that companies also can contribute to non-discrimination more broadly, for example, by participating in government initiatives to promote equality of opportunity for underrepresented groups in particular sectors such as computer programming.

What is the Dilemma?

In some contexts, certain discrimination aspects may be accepted culturally or embedded in national laws, posing challenges for businesses seeking to ensure that discrimination does not occur within their own operations or supply chains, especially when they span many countries with different cultural norms and legislation. Most commonly, however, discrimination is indirect and/or the result of implicit or unconscious bias and arises where rules or practices have the appearance of neutrality but in fact, lead to exclusions. In such cases, discrimination may be much harder to detect and require more persistent efforts to overcome.

Prevalence of Discrimination in Employment and Occupation

Discrimination in employment and occupation is still prevalent despite significant legal efforts and policy measures undertaken by Governments, workers, employers and civil society groups. Millions of women and men around the world are denied access to jobs and training, receive low wages or are restricted to certain occupations simply on the basis of their sex, skin colour, ethnicity or beliefs, without regard to their capabilities and skills. The UN suggests that gender discrimination and inequality in the workplace is still rife around the world and that up to 90% of persons with disabilities of working age in developing countries, and 70% in developed countries, are unemployed. International statistics on racism in the workplace are hard to compile, but many national reports show that racism continues to be a major issue.

Key trends include:

  • The gender pay gap reflects the ongoing discrimination faced by women in the workplace. The ILO estimates that across the world women on average continue to be paid about 20% less than men. This is echoed by the UNDP which finds that women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men receive for the same work. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2023, it will take over 169 years to achieve equality in terms of women’s economic empowerment and participation. After the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, the global gender gap has increased by a generation. Moreover, the WEPs Gender Gap Analysis Tool shows that only 52% of companies have a stand-alone policy or a commitment embedded in a broader corporate policy that addresses equal pay for work of equal value.
  • People with disabilities, particularly women, face enormous physical and informational barriers to equal opportunities in the world of work. They also face barriers to entering and excelling in the workplace because people wrongly believe more limited ability in one aspect means a person is limited in all ways. There is also a common misperception among employers that providing reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities and other employees with particular needs is costly, although most accommodation does not entail a significant cost. Compared to non-disabled persons, people with disabilities experience higher rates of unemployment and economic inactivity and are at greater risk of insufficient social protection that is a key to reducing extreme poverty.
  • Xenophobia is a pressing issue that is on the rise globally. In Europe, North America and Australia, there has been a rise in xenophobia and systematic racism in recent years, which has then translated into workplace discrimination. The rhetoric of non-white people — particularly minority groups, immigrants or migrants — ‘taking jobs’ exists throughout societies and in many industries, resulting in racism and discrimination.
  • Anti-Asian sentiment has increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Suspected to be the result of the global pandemic starting in China, hate crimes, discrimination and violence against Asian people have risen hugely since the end of 2019. This includes attacks on Asian workplaces, such as restaurants and shops, as well as harassment of Asian labourers.
  • The Black Lives Matter movement has been instrumental in raising awareness of systemic racism. In May 2020, following the murder of an African American man George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, USA, the Black Lives Matter movement gathered renewed national and global attention. Protests and petitions against the racist treatment of Black people occurred around the world, highlighting the systemic and systematic racism that Black people and other minorities experience (e.g. indigenous peoples) on a daily basis, including in the workplace. Businesses have since stepped in to highlight the actions they take to prevent racism and provide safe, diverse and inclusive workplaces free of discriminatory practices.
  • Although the Black Lives Matter movement has helped raise awareness of systemic racism, African Americans and other minorities continue to face discrimination in the workplace.University of Chicago study found that over half of Black employees have felt racism at work and that only 3.2% of executives and senior manager-level employees are Black. Another report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research finds that Black women in professional occupations earn just 63.7 cents for every dollar earned by White men. Anti-Black racism is not just an American problem, it is also perpetuated in other parts of the world, such as Switzerland where UN human rights experts found people of African descent experiencing racial discrimination in various aspects of their lives.
  • Migrant workers are subject to pervasive discrimination in society and in the workplace. Reports from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) suggest that around 3.5% of the global population are international migrants, and around 10% of the global population are migrants within their own country or ‘internal’ migrants. Migration is increasing globally, and while this can create opportunities for more equality and for societies and cultures to integrate, it also can cause increased discrimination in host or receiving countries. Migrants may face difficulties in securing employment, accessing occupations matching their educational levels and obtaining adequate fair wages. Outbreaks of COVID-19 among migrant workers around the world have shone a spotlight on inadequate living conditions, which appear to facilitate the spread of the virus.

Impacts on Businesses

Discriminatory practices — or allegations of discrimination — impact businesses in multiple ways and can be found either in their own operations or in supply chains. Detecting discriminatory practices further down the supply chain, beyond Tier 1 suppliers, is a challenge for companies.

  • Reputational and brand risk: Campaigns by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions, consumers and other stakeholders can result in reduced sales and/or brand erosion. A reputation as a discriminatory workplace or company can cause workers to leave the company, as well as prevent new talent from applying for roles, potentially resulting in a less diverse and skilled workforce.
  • Financial risk: Divestment and/or avoidance by investors and finance providers (many of which are increasingly applying environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria to their decision-making) can result in reduced or more expensive access to capital and reduced shareholder value. Shareholder activism where resolutions are made by shareholders for changes in leadership due to perceived missteps in handling environmental or social issues, including discrimination in the workplace, can lead to financial and reputational risk.
  • Legal risk: Legal charges for discriminatory working practices can be brought against the company, company directors and/or individuals, up to and including criminal charges, which can result in imprisonment. In some countries, civil and criminal discrimination lawsuits can be raised by aggrieved employees as individuals or class action groups.
  • Operational risk: Discrimination demotivates the victims and potentially the workforce overall, harming business performance. Additionally, discriminatory practices tend to result in more homogenous workplaces. When responding to the diverse and changing needs of customers in the market, insights from employees with relevant backgrounds can be valuable. Furthermore, managing relationships with government authorities and local communities is an essential factor in maintaining a company’s political and social licence to operate. It is, therefore, helpful to ensure that employees reflect the societies in which they operate and have a first-hand understanding of local cultures, contexts and concerns.
  • On the positive side, bringing equality to the workplace has significant economic benefits. Employers who practice equality have access to a larger, more diverse and higher quality workforce. Workers who enjoy equality of treatment and opportunity have greater job satisfaction, organizational commitment, motivation and performance. The profits of a globalized economy are more fairly distributed in a society with equality, leading to greater social stability and broader public support for further economic development.

Impacts on Human Rights

Freedom from discrimination is a fundamental human right and is essential for workers to be able to choose their employment freely, develop their potential to the full and reap economic rewards based on merit. Discrimination in employment and occupation has the potential to impact a range of human rights,[1] including but not limited to:

  • Right to equality and right to pursue economic, social and cultural development without discrimination (UDHR, Article 2, ICESCR, Article 2): All human rights should be enjoyed by all people “without distinction of any kind” and regardless of their status (including their national, ethnic and cultural origin/affiliation).
  • Right to work (UDHR, Article 23, ICESCR, Article 6): Discrimination affects the capacity to enjoy the fundamental right to work. This right encompasses the right to equal pay for equal work, as well as equal access to technical and vocational guidance and training programmes.
  • Right to enjoy just and favourable conditions of work (UDHR, Article 23, ICESCR, Article 7): Elements of this right include equal remuneration for work of equal value, safe and healthy living conditions and the provision of rest, leisure and reasonable limits on working hours for all people independent of their personal status.
  • Right to freedom of association (UDHR, Article 20, ICCPR, Article 22): In some countries, members of minority groups or migrant workers may be prevented from forming workers’ organizations and participating in social dialogue.
  • Right to use own language (ICCPR, Article 27): Minority groups are usually found in a ‘non-dominant’ position in the societies in which they live and often speak languages that are not shared with the majority and/or dominant groups. Therefore, a lack of materials available in languages or dialects spoken by minorities may undermine their ability to engage with State officials and institutions and undermine their collective bargaining options.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The following SDG targets relate to non-discrimination in employment and occupation:

  • Goal 1 (“End poverty in all its forms everywhere”), Target 1.4: By 2030 ensure that all men and women, particularly the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership, and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology, and financial services including microfinance.
  • Goal 4 (“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”), Target 4.5: By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and children in vulnerable situations.
  • Goal 5 (“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”):
    • Target 5.2: Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.
    • Target 5.4: Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies, and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.
    • Target 5.5: Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life.
    • Target 5.a: Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance, and natural resources in accordance with national laws.
  • Goal 8 (“Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”):
    • Target 8.5: By 2030 achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value.
    • Target 8.8: Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment.
  • Goal 10 (“Reduce inequality within and among countries”), Target 10.3: Ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including through eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices and promoting appropriate legislation, policies and actions in this regard.

Key Resources

The following resources provide further information on how businesses can address discrimination in their operations and supply chains:

  • United Nations Global Compact-OHCHR, The Labour Principles of the UN Global Compact — A Guide for Business: The purpose of this guide is to increase the understanding of the four labour principles, including Principle 6 on Non-Discrimination in Employment, as well as to provide an inventory of key resources to help integrate these principles into business operations.
  • ILO, Equality at Work: The Continuing Challenge: A global report on diversity in the workplace and examples of how to improve it.
  1. By introducing the due diligence-based corporate responsibility to respect human rights, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) shift the focus from impacts on businesses to impacts on human rights. Further information on UNGPs is included in section ‘Due Diligence Considerations’.

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