Equality based on respect
View from the Chair, as published in the News Letter, Tues 31 July 2012
Michael Wardlow, Chief Commissioner, Equality Commission NI
Over many years business people in Northern Ireland have co-operated with the Equality Commission and its predecessor equality bodies to develop workplaces into safe environments free from intimidating symbolism and harassment. In doing so, they made a huge contribution to our society.
The attainment and maintenance of good relations in many of our workplaces, despite decades of violent conflict, was an important factor in maintaining some level of cross-community contact between people. Indeed, sometimes, it was only in the workplace, and through professional and business contacts, that such relationships were sustained.
As all business people know, when tackling any long-standing challenges complacency, based on past success, can be fatal. Our vigilance in terms of workplace relationships has to be continually refocused not only to ensure that old tensions don’t recur; but to take account of the new realities faced by a changing society.
Of course, sectarianism still remains a reality in our communities, and so each year, as young people enter and older people retire, we must maintain the mechanisms, the commitment and focus, which have served us well up to now in tackling any expressions of sectarian divisions within the workplace.
The same basic principles which have helped us challenge sectarianism are also effective in challenging other, more recently identified prejudices. As increasing numbers of people from other countries are working here, the Commission has been advising and helping employers face new issues, arising from the reaction of some people to the realities of an increasingly diverse society. For example, the Equality Commission’s attitude survey showed that around a quarter of those surveyed expressed negative attitudes to having a migrant worker as a work colleague; so though the majority of people are welcoming, we shouldn’t underestimate the potential which exists for problems on this issue and on others.
In the same survey over 20% gave a negative response to a question about having a gay, lesbian or bi-sexual person as a work colleague while 35% said they wouldn’t want to work alongside a transgendered person. Of course, discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, including harassment at work, has been unlawful for almost nine years now, but it remains a problem for many gay people. Members of that community who will be celebrating at the annual Pride festival this week, will have experienced hurtful and discriminatory treatment, often on a regular basis. Employers should be just as focussed and proactive in dealing with this kind of prejudice in their workplace as with age, disability, race, sectarianism or gender.
Equality requires each of us to respect the rights of those who are different from ourselves. Kofi Annan once said “True tolerance is an active, even assertive quality, based on mutual respect. Its aim must be, not to eliminate differences between human beings, but to embrace and even celebrate them as a source of joy and strength”. That remains our challenge.
The laws dealing with all the equality issues lay down a clear framework of basic standards which must be applied and codes of good practice which employers can rely upon to create a working environment that is welcoming and in which the rights of all are protected. The Equality Commission can provide free and confidential advice to employers about all these issues.