Racism and discrimination at work: a challenge for European trade unions

Manifestation pour les 160 ans de l'abolition de l'esclavage
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Manifestation pour les 160 ans de l'abolition de l'esclavage

by Dr. Nouria Ouali

Racism and discrimination at workplaces in Europe

Racism and discrimination against migrants and ethnic minorities remain a major issue in contemporary European societies. Racism is an ideology and a social construct reflecting the belief that humanity is divided into distinctive groups based on biological or cultural attributes and that certain groups are inferior or superior to others. Discrimination is a practice (intentional or not intentional and direct or indirect 1) that occurs in daily live, in recruitment, promotion, work conditions, housing, education etc. and puts minority groups or individuals at a disadvantage.

Growth of racism and discrimination during the economic crisis

Racism and discrimination especially at the workplace became a real concern of National Equality Bodies in EU member states and for most international organizations such as the Fundamental Right Agency, the Council of Europe, Amnesty International, the International Labour Organisation and OECD. The latest reports of these organisations highlighted an alarming increase of racism and discrimination, particularly arising from the economic crisis, and pointed out the consequences for migrants and ethnic minorities.

According to the ILO (2011) the crisis brought about unfair working conditions and the deterioration of working conditions (even violence). Consequences are unemployment, exclusion of migrant workers from social insurance programmes, hostile political discourses that led to hardening attitudes towards migrants, discrimination, racism and rejection. The last diversity barometer in Belgium 2012 showed that 40 percent of Belgians (natives and foreign-born) believed that the presence of North Africans, Turkish and Eastern EU citizens has a negative impact on the job market and 33 percent of white Belgians thought the same about Africans. 30 percent of the Belgians interviewed also thought that these ethnic minorities should not receive the right to work in Belgium and 40 percent believed that it is better to send them back to their country of origin in case of unemployment. About 25 percent of the respondents thought that these minorities have a harmful influence on the weakness of wages in Belgium (CEOOR 2012).

Regarding the experience of racism, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights reported that:

“every fourth person from a minority group has experienced a racially-motivated crime and that up to 90 percent of all assaults or threats experienced by migrants or members of ethnic minority groups are not reported to the police” (FRA 2012).

As for the position on the employment market, the ILO Global Report (2011) observed that despite some progress made in the fight against discrimination in the last decade

“it continues to be persistent and multifaceted. A major area of concern is access to jobs. (…) Discrimination has also become more varied, and discrimination on multiple grounds is becoming the rule rather than the exception. (…) In times of crisis, inequality, insecurity and the danger of exclusion are fed by direct or indirect discrimination”.

Stereotypical labeling of certain groups and other barriers impede equal access to the job market and affect mostly people of African and Asian descend, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, and above all women within these groups. The ILO also warns that austerity measures taken to mitigate the effect of the crisis “have on occasion indirectly and inadvertently increased discrimination against certain groups of workers” because of cutbacks in the budgets of labour administrations and inspection services, and in funds of specialized non-discrimination and equality bodies.

Deterioration of migrants and ethnic minorities’ position in employment

The OECD 2013 report highlighted the deterioration of migrants and ethnic minorities’ positions in employment:

“Migrants’ labour market situation has worsened over the past years, both in terms of levels and compared with the native-born. The proportion of immigrants among those unemployed for over a year rose from 31 percent to 44 percent in OECD countries.”

In fact, between 2008 and 2012 the unemployment rate of foreign-born workers has increased on average by 5 percentage points (from 8.1 percent in 2008 to 12.9 percent in 2012) while it raised by 3 percentage points for native-born workers (5.4 percent to 8.7 percent). In 2012, more migrants were affected by long-term unemployment. Almost one out of two unemployed migrants was seeking a job for more than a year. The impact of the crisis was particularly strong on Central and South American and on North African people, who faced a record high unemployment of 27 percent in 2012. The report also highlighted that immigrants and their children have to send more than twice as many applications as people without a migration background having corresponding CVs. (OECD 2013)

Amnesty International (2012) pointed out discrimination in employment on the basis of religion well documented by a fieldwork carried out in Belgium, in Spain, in France, in the Netherlands and in Switzerland. The reports underlined that Muslims – and particularly women – in these countries are discriminated on the job market for as little as wearing a hijab or otherwise expressing their religious belief. The Council of Europe stated that religion is used as a pretext to cover up discrimination on other grounds (ECRI 2012). For Muslims, Islamophobia has become particularly blatant since 9/11. Islam is more and more seen as threat for the European civilization and a threat for democracy and secularism (Zemni 2011).

The increasing racism and hate crimes against migrants and ethnic minorities led the European parliament to pass a resolution on March 14th, 2013, strengthening the fight against racism, xenophobia and hate crime (2013/2543(RSP)) by considering that

“Member States must prevent the temptations of growing intolerance and scapegoating in times of economic crisis which put in danger the principle of solidarity”.

Challenging racism by trade union organisations

After World War II, European trade unions first opposed immigration which was seen as a strategy of employers to weaken the local workers’ movements (Penninx and Roosblad 2000). Later on, the unions began to recruit migrant workers and subsequently started to defend their rights. Some of them went as far as creating specific structures for migrants (UK and Belgium for example) (Jefferys and Ouali, 2007). However, the unions remained ambiguous towards immigrants: even if they clearly advocate for equal treatment and social justice, they still prioritize the rights of white (skilled) male workers (particularly in public services) to the detriment of other groups of workers (women, migrants, minorities) (Munro 2001).

In 2003, a survey of the European Trade Union confederation (ETUC) showed that 21 out of 24 confederations recognized that migrants and ethnic minorities had a particular position in the job market with higher levels of unemployment, lower pay (particularly for women), and slower promotion. Most of the confederations (22 out of 24) had staff (between 1 to 30 people) who took care of migrants and ethnic minority workers issues. Two-thirds of the confederations (16 out of 24) set up a special committee dealing with these issues and only seven confederations had conferences for ethnic minority workers. Half of the confederations had information on the proportion of migrant or ethnic minority workers amongst their members (from 1 percent to 35 percent) and the definitions of these groups varied greatly depending on the confederation. Only nine confederations planned to increase the number of activists from BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) (ETUC 2003).

Although many unions in Europe display an antiracist, antifascist and antidiscrimination stance nowadays, setting up specific policies and practices tackling racism at work are still delayed. According to Mary Davis, trade unions were not really involved in the issues of race and discrimination since the implementation of an equal opportunities agenda was seen as a management’s responsibility. As a consequence they just criticized employers who were not respecting the unions’ policies and adhering to race relation legislation:

“Matters of race equality have come to be seen as being the responsibility of ethnic minority workers on the basis that only they understand the effects of racism in the workplace. Often trade union ambitions have become confined to dealing with the result of racism in the workplace rather than tackling the causes.” (Davis, 2007: 466)

European social partners and antidiscrimination policy

The commitment of European social partners for the prevention of discrimination started in October 1995 when the European Trade Union Congress (ETUC), UNICE (the forerunner of Business Europe) and European Centre of Employers and Enterprises (CEEP) signed the “Florence Declaration”, a joint declaration for the prevention of racial discrimination and xenophobia and for the promotion of equal treatment at the workplace. It proposed a set of measures to prevent discrimination in recruitment, selection, in training and development. Yet, these measures have never been assessed and the results of several researches during the last years at the European level (RITU 2005, FRA 2010, WLRI 2010, CRAW 2013) showed that progress is still very slow.

For example, the FRA (2010) research highlighted that social partners have been more involved in the fight against racism and discrimination at the top of the organisations while it remains weaker at the company level. The enactment of the Racial Equality Directive and its transposition into national legislation have improved awareness-raising for racial and ethnic discrimination and encouraged joint initiatives to challenge it. Nevertheless, their approaches differ widely since trade unions are in favour of compulsory regulations while the employer organisations prefer voluntary solutions and incentive measures. Some trade unions also reconsidered their views of opposing ethnic monitoring, and recognized the need to develop a union leadership reflecting the diversity of the membership (FRA 2010).

Beyond that, the research revealed that many trade unionists were disappointed since the Racial Equality Directive had not led to any changes in employer attitudes to discrimination. Second, because in the present economic downturn, racial discrimination is not a priority for their union as it is not a priority for their members; as a matter of fact some instances tolerate discrimination. Moreover, a denial of racism and discrimination still exists among confederations, trade unionists and employers, considering that unfavourable treatment experienced by “other” workers is not discrimination but a result of their own actions or traditions (FRA 2010).

Furthermore, the WLRI research (2010) analyzed 280 trade union action initiatives in 34 European countries, which fight discrimination or promote equality on five grounds (race, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation). The report noticed that under the impetus of the European Union and local governments, trade unions have developed several successful initiatives and most of them were on racial and ethnic minority ground. The greatest number of initiatives concerned union training, awareness-raising and changes in structure (i.e. creation of a diversity committee). Collective agreements on diversity management have also been taken in some companies (hotel sector or public hospital) (WLRI, 2010).

For example, the three Belgian trade union confederations (CSC, FGTB, CGSLB) have taken more and more joint actions aiming at awareness-raising of militants of all sectors throughout the knowledge of legal instruments (law, collective agreements, work regulation) and campaigns (posters, leaflets). On the other hand, they have sought out improvement of equality at the company level through diversity plans, staff monitoring and guidelines. As far as the legal battle is concerned, FGTB, CEOOR and Kif-Kif NGO cooperated in the Adecco case through a joint complaint that led in 2011 to the condemnation of the temporary work agency for discrimination on racial grounds after the social inspectorate discovered, ten years before, that a label BBB (Bleu-Blanc-Belge 2: White, Blue, Belgian) was affixed on hundred of candidate forms in order to eliminate BME from job offers of certain companies.

The need for a strong commitment to fight racism and discrimination

Racism at work is well documented throughout a survey carried out between 2003 and 2005 in five European member states (Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Italy and the UK). The RITU research (2005) gathered around 450 interviews and focused on racist experiences with colleagues, management, customers, and union representatives at the workplace 3. The most frequent and serious incidents that were reported concerned racist insults or jokes, discrimination and favouritism in work conditions, disparaging or humiliating attitudes, and physical and moral violence. The vast majority of the incidents were not reported to the union representative for different reasons:

  • first, the victims feared of being stigmatized and isolated in return by their colleagues,
  • second, they were afraid of not being listened and trusted, and
  • third, they had no confidence in a legal procedure because, according to them, it would lead more likely to a dismissal of the charges as it had already happened notably in Belgium.

As far as the local unions response to racism, the fieldwork in the public transport companies in Brussels, London and Paris highlighted four main kinds of responses described as protectionist, denial, assimilationist or equal opportunities (Jefferys and Ouali 2007). Denial and assimilation were most prevalent. Protectionism consists in “reserving” better jobs for white workers, denying access to information (for e.g. promotion) or excluding minority workers from exercising any influence in the local union and at work. Denial appears through the assertion that racism doesn’t exist or in defining it as a radical behaviour of extreme right political activists outside the workplace or also in putting in question the reliability of the minority workers’ statements or its racist character.

Many trade unionists did not consider the fact that ethnic minority senior managers and black supervisory staff were rare or absent as a (indirect) discrimination but rather as a consequence of the glass ceiling. Some trade unionists were convinced that raising the racism issue would create racism and divide the working class. Consequently, as an assimilationist response to racism, they suggested ethnic minority workers, for their own sake, to melt down into the “majority group”:

“Personally and politically opposed to any prejudice, xenophobia or direct racism, they believed strongly that it is in the interests of ethnic minority workers to identify as closely as possible with the ‘majority’ of trade unionists. Only through a shared agenda and demands would the unity be created that could take the whole movement forward.” (Jefferys and Ouali 2007: 416)

Although some white workers who dominated the local union advocated the concept of equal opportunities as a response to racism, they put no effort in fighting institutional racism and no pressure on the management to ensure equal representation among supervisory and managerial staff that were all-white in the three public transport companies. Consequently, most of ethnic minority trade union members felt not really protected against discrimination and not really encouraged to become activists in the local organisation (ibidem).

The CRAW research released in 2013, a follow-up of RITU, confirmed the persistence of attitudes and behaviours and of difficulties that trade unions have been facing to prevent and fight racism at work. The survey showed, not only that racism is more explicit and uninhibited particularly against Roma and Muslims, but also, that the issue is no longer a taboo among union representatives as it was ten years ago. However the shifting into the diversity policy has marginalized racism and discrimination issues and thus preventing them from being seen as a priority when those issues should be the core of the unions’ policy and should concern all the sectors and levels of the organisations.

Trade unions and anti-racist strategies

At work, European trade unions play an important role in awareness-raising throughout campaigning, training, social dialogue and legal procedure in order to challenge prejudices and stereotypes against migrants and ethnic minorities among their own members and among employers.

Trade unions should define more explicitly a clear anti-racist strategy and assess this in an annual conference. Anti-racist and anti-discrimination initiatives should be publicized e.g. through the publications or the websites of the unions to show the benefits of equality for all workers. At the same time more training for representatives and ethnic minorities should be provided to raise awareness for their rights and inform them about existing tools for fighting racism and discrimination. Particularly at the company level, like collective agreements, employment monitoring and social dialogue strategy to ensure the diversity of the staff at all functions. These trainings should develop a better comprehension of multiple discriminations by addressing it through an intersectional approach rather than dealing with each strand of discrimination separately.

Trade unions could cooperate with NGOs and National Equality bodies, even if certain trade unionists have put in question their efficiency, their independence from government and the unwillingness of some equality bodies to publicize anti-discrimination laws in employment (FRA 2010). On the legislation side, as trade unionists claim, politics have to guarantee the effectiveness of anti-discrimination laws across the EU and to ensure infringement proceedings being pursued strongly, notably in imposing substantial penalties and fines.

Trade unions also need to empower migrants and ethnic minority members in order to enable them to defend their own interests directly. For this purpose, the unions must develop new organisational structures, which reflect the needs and aspirations of newer members or members from different communities. They should establish discrimination departments or offices, appoint officers with a specific discrimination responsibility, promote self-organised groups, encourage candidates from members of discriminated groups for the position of union officials, and reserve seats on union executive boards (WLRI, 2010).


1 Direct discrimination is when ‘one person is treated less favourably than another is, has been, or would be in a comparable situation on grounds of racial or ethnic origin’. Indirect discrimination occurs when ‘an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice would put persons of a racial or ethnic origin at a particular disadvantage compared with other persons, unless that provision, criterion or practice is objectively justified by a legitimate aim and the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary’. (Racial Equality Directive, article 2) http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32000L0043:…
2 It refers to the name of a breed of beef cattle from Belgium (Belgian Blue).
3 For details see Transfer: “Racism at work”, Volume 13, number 3, Autumn 2007.



  • Amnesty International (2012), The State of the World’s Human Rights, Report 2012.
  • CEOOR (2012), Baromètre de la diversité. Emploi. http://www.diversite.be/
  • CRAW (forthcoming), Challenging Racism At Work (VS/2012/0240), European Commission.
  • Davis M. (2007), Working against racism: how European trade unions can combat racism at work, Transfer, 13, 3, Autumn, 463-475.
  • ECRI (2012), Annual Report on ECRI’s Activity, CRI(2012)23, Strasbourg, May.
  • ETUC (2003), Migrant and Ethnic Minority Workers: Challenging Trade Unions, ETUC.
  • FRA (2010), The impact of the Racial Equality Directive. Views of trade unions and employers in the European Union, Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union.
  • FRA (2012), Making hate crime visible in the European Union: acknowledging victims’ rights, Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union.
  • ILO (2011), Equality at work:
 The continuing challenge, International Labour Conference 100th Session.
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  • OECD (2013), International Migration Outlook 2013, OECD Publishing.
  • Penninx R., Roosblad J. (2000), Trade unions, immigration and immigrants in Europe 1960-1993. A comparative study of attitudes and actions of trade unions in seven West European countries, Berghahn, Oxford.
  • RITU (2005), Racial and ethnic minorities, immigration and the role of trade unions in combatting discrimination and xenophobia, in encouraging participation and in securing social inclusion and citizenship, (HPSE-CT-2002-00129) www.workingagainstracism.org
  • WLRI (2010) Trade union practices on anti-discrimination and diversity. European Trade Union Anti-Discrimination and Diversity study: innovative and significant practices in fighting discrimination and promoting diversity, Luxembourg, European Commission.
  • Zemni Sami (2011) “The shaping of Islam and Islamophobia in Belgium”, Race & Class, 53, 1, 28-44.



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Dr. Nouria Ouali has a Ph.D. in Sociology and is a senior researcher at the Centre METICES at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Currently, she teaches Social Work Theory at ULB and Gender and Race Discrimination at the Université Lumière Lyon2 in France.