The term "equal opportunities" stipulates that everyone within an organisation should be treated fairly and have an equal chance to apply and be selected for posts, to have equal pay for work of equal value, and an equal chance of being trained and promoted. There has been a range of legislation in the UK to prevent discrimination at work. The anti-discrimination legislation that exists today has come about because of the struggles of previous generations of workers in defence of their rights.
Racial discrimination at work is when workers who are not white, or those who come from Eastern Europe such as travellers, face discrimination in the process of recruitment or promotion, or have inferior access to bonus or overtime work. Such discrimination takes place because of the race, colour, ethnic or national origin of the worker.
One example of race discrimination concerns the experience of workers of African and Asian descent in the UK. From 1948 onwards, Britain encouraged the immigration of people from Commonwealth countries to fill shortages in the UK labour market. But immigrants often found that they faced discrimination and disadvantage in the labour market. For example, a so-called ‘colour bar’ operated in many private sector jobs as well as public sector jobs like British railways and bus services, which barred migrant workers from supervisory roles, administrative and clerical posts. Often the only jobs that they could get were low paid, low status, manual occupations in the same workplace - as cleaners rather than drivers of buses or porters rather than train drivers in the case of the railways.
The trade unions which represent workers and fight for their rights were originally formed to defend the pay and conditions of white male workers in the 19th century. But this changed over the course of the 20th century. Trade unions in the UK are now much better at responding to the legitimate demands of non-white and women workers and are now a central part of campaigns to extend rights that were previously denied to non-white workers. The first law banning discrimination on the basis of race was passed in 1968.
However, research has consistently shown that racism and discrimination continues to affect non-white and women workers in the UK. This disadvantage and discrimination affects the employment opportunities open to new migrants as well as ‘second generation migrants’. In 2010, as part of a study, researchers submitted nearly 3000 fake job applications from applicants with white and ethnic minority sounding names. The applications were matched in terms of similar levels of qualifications and experience. This study found that for ethnic minority applicants there was a success rate of one in sixteen applications, compared to one in nine for candidates with white-sounding names.
Institutions for disabled people began to be established in the 18th century, but the vast majority of people with disabilities lived in their communities. Over the course of the 19th century, it became policy to remove people with disabilities from mainstream economic and social life and confine them in institutions such as special hospitals. This process accelerated through the late 19th century and was still common up to the 1950s.
During and immediately after the two World Wars, there was increasing concern about the conditions faced by ex-servicemen with disabilities. This resulted in welfare and training schemes offered by government and charities to integrate war veterans with physical disabilities into the community, and facilitate their access to paid work. The first Act of Parliament to treat people with disabilities as a single group was the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act of 1944 which made provision for a variety of rehabilitation services and vocational training courses.
In response to increasing criticism of existing policies the government introduced “Care in the Community” policies, which led to the closing of many of the Victorian hospitals for people with disabilities and the establishment of small scale homes in the community. There have also been measures to remove barriers which prevent people with disabilities from participating in paid work through a range of anti-discrimination legislation, some of which has originated in the European Union.
Positive action to encourage the employment of people with disabilities has also been implemented. For example, the ‘positive about disabled people’ symbol (with 2 ticks) on job adverts means that the employer is committed to employing disabled people. If a job advert displays the symbol, a candidate disclosing a disability will be guaranteed an interview if s/he meets the basic conditions for the job.
Despite these changes, people with disabilities have high rates of unemployment. In 2012, 46.3% of working-age people with disabilities were in employment compared to 76.4% of working-age people without disabilities. While disability may prevent some people from being able to do particular kinds of work, discrimination is also a significant factor preventing disabled people from entering and sustaining paid work.
Historically, employers in the UK discriminated against workers on grounds of gender - as when women were paid lower wages than men for doing similar work, were sacked for being pregnant or when ‘marriage bars’ operated against married women but not against married men. Some of these forms of gender discrimination have been explored elsewhere (see sections on gender pay gap and on maternity leave and pay). In addition to these issues, women workers also faced various forms of sexual harassment at work, and these were only taken up by trade unions from the 1980s onwards. Despite advances in the legislation, it is estimated that 30,000 women still lose their job every year because of becoming pregnant .
Workers also face discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in matters of recruitment and in terms and conditions of employment and pay. This discrimination can affect workers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or because a worker identifies as a member of the opposite sex by living or seeking to live as a member of that sex. If an employer gives benefits to the unmarried partners of its employees, (for example allowing an employee's opposite sex partner to drive the company car) refusing the same benefits to same-sex partners could be classified as discrimination.
The equality legislation enacted in the 1970s and 1980sconstituted important steps in tackling discrimination at work, but did not cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. For example, homosexuality remained a cause for instant dismissal and even court martial within the armed forces till 1999. Organisations campaigning for gay rights consistently raised the issue of discrimination at work from the 1970s onwards. However, the ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces was not lifted until January 2000. This came about when the European Convention on Human Rights, which explicitly introduced the category of sexual orientation, was incorporated into British law.
Despite the existence of anti-discrimination legislation for over a decade now, discrimination and harassment on grounds of sexuality continues to prevail due to underlying cultural values and negative attitudes in society. Trade unions and groups campaigning for the rights of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals continue to challenge such discrimination.
From the late 1960s, particular aspects of discrimination were tackled through the passage of new laws. For example, the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal for people to be discriminated against on the grounds of their sex, and the 1976 Race Relations Act outlawed discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, nationality and ethnic origin. There were other laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Equalities Act 2010 brought the different laws together in one piece of legislation. This outlaws direct or indirect discrimination in access to employment as well as private and public services on grounds of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, disability, age, religion or belief, marriage and civil partnership.
Direct discrimination occurs when people are treated less favourably than others simply because of their race, sex, disability etc. For example, a company refuses to employ a woman because she has children, but employs a man with children.
Indirect discrimination is when a rule which is supposed to be applied equally, in reality unfairly disadvantages one group of people. For example, a company advertises a job and says that only people with English as their first language should apply. This indirectly discriminates against people who know enough English to do the job, but for whom English is their second language.
Workers who face any form of discrimination can take their employer to the Employment Tribunal. But this process relies on individual workers to bring their cases against an employer who most often has substantially more resources than a lone worker.
Those workers who are members of a trade union can rely on lawyers provided by their union. But not all workers are unionised, and in some sectors like retail and hospitality, unionisation levels are particularly low. These are sectors where working conditions are often the poorest and the wages particularly low. Despite its benefits, legislation on its own is not sufficient to safeguard workers’ rights.
Over the last fifty years there has been increasing protection for workers against different forms of discrimination. However there are fears that the current economic downturn and high levels of unemployment will make it difficult for workers to fight discrimination through tribunals, especially when the cost of such actions is rising and people fear that they will lose their jobs.
From July 2013, the Coalition government announced new upfront fees of up to £1,200 which workers will have to pay for taking employment tribunal cases against their employers. This fee applies to workers pursuing sexual harassment or race discrimination complaints after they have been unfairly dismissed. Trade unions have criticised this move – which ministers claim will save money for businesses and taxpayers – as the latest attack on workers' fundamental rights. The TUC general secretary, Frances O'Grady, said: "Today is a great day for Britain's worst bosses. By charging upfront fees for harassment and abuse claims, the government is making it easier for employers to get away with the most appalling behaviour."
Fawcett Society expressed concerns that upfront employment tribunal fees will prevent women from seeking justice when they discover they are being paid less than a male counterpart. They were acting on evidence that showed that there has been a reduction of 70% in the number of cases brought to the tribunal since the introduction of upfront fees.
On 26 July 2017, in a case against the government brought by the trade union, UNISON, fees for those bringing employment tribunal claims have been ruled unlawful. After the government introduced fees of up to £1,200 in 2013, which it said would cut the number of malicious and weak cases, government statistics showed 75% fewer cases were brought over three years - trade union Unison said the fees prevented workers accessing justice.
Britain's highest court unanimously ruled that the fees contravene both EU and UK law such as the Equality Act 2010 and are "discriminatory" against women as they disproportionately affected women. The Supreme Court ruled that the Government's employment tribunal fees are "illegal" and preventing people - especially those on lower incomes – from getting justice.
The Ministry of Justice said it would take “immediate steps to stop charging fees in employment tribunals and put in place arrangements to refund those who have paid”. The Government will have to refund up to £32 million to the thousands of people charged for taking claims to tribunal since July 2013, when fees were introduced by Chris Grayling, the then Lord Chancellor.