Act extends protection to seven new grounds


The Employment Equality Act (1998), which comes into force today, replaces the Employment Equality Act of 1977.

That Act outlawed discrimination in employment or access to training on the grounds of gender or marital status. However, the new Employment Equality Act differs from its predecessor in that it extends this protection to seven other grounds: family status, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, race, disability and membership of the Traveller community.

Discrimination is described as treating one person in a less favourable way than another person has been or would be treated.

Two types of discrimination are identified in the legislation. Direct discrimination is straightforward - the less favourable treatment of one individual when compared with another.

Indirect discrimination, however, may cause more problems for employers. This covers requirements which may not appear to be discriminatory, but which adversely affect a particular class or group of people covered by the legislation. There need not be any intention to discriminate for indirect discrimination to exist.

For example, a requirement that women employees wear uniforms with short skirts, contrary to the religious beliefs of certain groups like Muslims, could be construed as discriminatory, though a case would have to be taken to prove it.

The areas covered by this legislation include not only employers but trade unions, vocational training bodies, employment agencies, collective agreements and advertisements. Also covered are not only access to employment, but conditions of employment, access to promotion and equal pay.

The legislation also extends to harassment of a person on any of the nine grounds and sexual harassment. For the first time in Irish law this is defined by statute. It covers unwelcome, offensive, humiliating or intimidating actions and extends to employers, employees, clients, customers or business contacts.

An employer may take positive action to promote certain groups of people without being open to charges of discrimination. This includes measures to integrate into employment people over the age of 50, with a disability or who are members of the Traveller community, as well as action to remove existing inequalities affecting opportunities for women.

There are exemptions to the general thrust of the legislation. These include benefits to women in connection with maternity or adoption, where the sex of a person is an occupational qualification for the job, personal services like caring for an elderly person in his or her own home, and employment in the Garda Siochana or prison service.

There is also an exclusion in relation to religious, educational and medical institutions run by religious bodies who are allowed to discriminate to maintain their religious ethos.

Those who feel they have been discriminated against should initially raise the issue with their employer. If this fails to resolve the issue, they can go to the Equality Authority for advice and help and then pursue a claim for redress through the office of the Director of Equality Investigations.