Anniversary of Employment Equality Acts underlines failings


OPINION:Ireland stands accused of breaching the EU equal treatment directives

‘WE ALL need to accept our responsibility to make sure that does work and brings about change and an end to discrimination.” This was the challenge posed by former taoiseach Bertie Ahern when he launched the Employment Equality Act on October 18th, 1999.

This was a time of significant political ambition. John O’Donoghue, then minister for justice, equality and law reform, spoke of setting the stage for the Equality Authority “to lead and guide our citizens to make the behavioural, and ultimately the attitudinal, changes necessary to bring about a more equal society”.

This ambition went further when the Equal Status Act was enacted a year later. Over the next 10 years this legislation enabled progress on a wide range of equality issues. Ageism was highlighted and challenged. This issue emerged in 2001 when Ryanair advertised to recruit a “young and dynamic” director of regulatory affairs. The Equality Authority took a case under the Employment Equality Act. The Equality Tribunal noted that there were no applicants over 40 and found the advertisement discriminatory. Ryanair then took out an advertisement in the Irish Timesaccusing the authority of discriminating against it.

Social norms ascribing sole responsibility for family care to women were challenged. Women took and won cases for being dismissed, having their work responsibilities diminished or experiencing workplace hostility because they were pregnant. In an example from 2003, Emerald Contract Cleaners were found to have discriminated against Laura Fearns when she told them she was pregnant. She had been effectively demoted when moved to a new position in the company and given no work or guidance by her employer.

The exploitation experienced by many migrant workers was exposed and challenged through casework under the Employment Equality Act. The issues included unequal pay, excessive working hours, leave entitlements being denied, dismissal and harassment.

Cases on race grounds have been increasing. In 2005 there were 82 such cases lodged with the Equality Tribunal. In 2008 359 such cases were lodged out of a total of 842 cases under the Employment Equality Acts.

Partnership rights were a key issue in cases taken by gay people. Cases were successfully taken against the Department of Social and Family Affairs because they refused people in same-sex couples access to benefits available to unmarried heterosexual couples. These cases led the department to commission an equality review of its programmes and contributed to growing pressure for same-sex couples to have access to civil marriage.

People with disabilities posed a challenge to respond effectively to diversity. The Employment Equality Acts require employers to make adjustments to enable employees with disabilities to participate in jobs unless this causes a disproportionate burden on the employer.

Aviance (UK) Ltd was found to be in breach of the legislation in 2007, for example, when it dismissed Vincent Kavanagh because he had a cardiac condition. He worked as a ramp supervisor. The tribunal found the firm failed to make adjustments to accommodate his condition.

The widespread nature of this inflexibility in responding to diversity was highlighted. The authority reported, in 2006, that 23 per cent of all its case files involved allegations of discrimination by people with disability. The cases were mainly taken due to the failure of employers and service providers to make the adjustments required for accessibility.

The 10th anniversary of the equality legislation is marked by an absence of the political ambition that accompanied its enactment. Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Dermot Ahern rendered the authority unviable when he cut its 2009 budget by 43 per cent. In November 2008 he was asked in the Dáil by Pat Rabbitte why he had “decided to kill off the Equality Authority”? He said his priority for 2009 “will be to tackle crime” and that he had “decided to focus on some of the more soft issues in the department to achieve a significant reduction”.

The Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act placed Ireland in a leadership position on the issue of equality within the European Union. On this 10th anniversary of the legislation, Ireland stands accused before the European Commission of being in breach of the EU equal treatment directives. These require member states to have an equality body to provide assistance to people who experience discrimination.

The Equality and Rights Alliance has lodged a complaint with the commission that the cutback to the funding of the authority means that it is unable to fulfil its functions.

The complaint is signed by 63 civil society organisations, including community groups and trade unions. A similar petition to the European Parliament has been supported by all Fine Gael, Labour, Socialist Party and independent MEPs.

What should be a moment of celebration and renewed endeavour for equality has become a moment of some embarrassment.

Niall Crowley is former chief executive of the Equality Authority