Equality at Work: The Continuing Challenge

Date: Friday, June 10, 2011

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet was the guest of honour on a panel to discuss the ILC 2011 Global Report on “Equality at Work: The Continuing Challenge, held on 10 June 2011 at the Palais des Nations Assembly Hall in Geneva.

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Monsieur Robert Nkili, président de cette historique 100e session de la Conférence international du travail; Vice-Presidents; ILO Director General Juan Somavia; Distinguished Panellists; Esteemed Ministers, Ambassadors and ILC delegates; UN Colleagues; Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am so pleased to return to the International Labour Conference this year in my capacity as head of UN Women. It is always heartening to see real social dialogue at work, and the ILO's Annual Conference is a source of inspiration and guidance on how major actors — women and men leaders from business, labour and government — can arrive at consensus on key current issues in the world of work in the 21st century. This conference shows us just how much can be achieved in a spirit of tripartism and healthy debate.

It also shows us that we still have a long road towards gender equality. Mr. Somavia told me that slightly less than 28 percent of the 3,000 accredited delegates attending this conference are women. This figure says a lot about gender imbalances — not only in the world of work, but also in the world of political participation, leadership and representation.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of today's panel on equality at work, which cuts to the heart of labour market inequalities and dysfunctions. The Director-General's report, “Equality at work: the continuing challenge, represents the latest snapshot of successes and shortfalls, gains and gaps, regarding inequality and discrimination in the workplace.

The report examines 12 areas of discrimination plus the phenomenon of “multiple discrimination: sex, race and ethnicity, nationality/migrant workers, religion, political opinion, social origin, HIV status, disability, age, sexual orientation, genetics and lifestyle. Most of these areas are covered by United Nations human rights instruments as well as under ILO labour standards, such as Convention No. 111 on discrimination in employment and occupation. And most of these still face real challenges in countries across the world.

While multiple and overlapping areas of discrimination will no doubt be widely discussed this afternoon, it is the subject of sex discrimination that I wish to particularly highlight in this dialogue with you.

Eliminating inequalities between women and men goes to the heart of UN Women's Strategic Plan. Grounded in the vision of equality enshrined in the UN Charter, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Beijing Platform for Action, and the Millennium Declaration, UN Women works to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls and as equal partners and beneficiaries of development, human rights, and peace and security.

Our approach is that eliminating gender discrimination is not only a matter of fundamental human rights, but is also smart economics. How many talents have been lost because of discrimination? Unlocking women's productive capacity and creativity is a win-win game for enterprises, workers, governments and societies.

Following intensive consultations with a wide range of partners in more than 100 countries, we have identified the following five priority thematic areas to help accelerate progress on gender equality:

  • women's economic empowerment;
  • women's political participation and leadership;
  • ending violence against women and girls;
  • engaging women fully in peace and post-conflict processes; and
  • strengthening national development planning and budgeting to promote gender equality.

As you will note, these priorities clearly resonate with the messages of the ILC Global Report.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

From the perspective of UN Women's mandate, I would like to make four main comments on the status of discrimination described in the Global Report:

First, gender discrimination in the labour market can be found in all countries, because one constant characteristic in labour force profiles is sex. And while multiple and overlapping areas of discrimination — such as sex and race; sex and disability; sex and age — must be eliminated, some of the greatest efforts must be made in overcoming sexism in employment and in the workplace. This is all the more apparent during periods of crisis, such as the economic and financial crisis that the world has experienced over the past two years. As the Global Report notes in para. 17, and I quote:

Female employment has been seriously affected in several countries by the particular impact of the crisis on export sectors. The African textile industry, for example, with a 90 per cent female low-skilled and low-educated workforce, has experienced cuts as a result of import contraction in foreign markets.

UN Women looks forward to working with ILO in addressing the gender inequalities that the current crisis risks exacerbating.

Second, new, or previously neglected areas of discrimination, especially in terms of sexual orientation, demand attention. For example, sexual orientation discrimination causes workplace harassment and actual pay inequalities. The Global Report highlights the salary gap between gay and non-gay employees at 3 to 30 percent, with additional gaps regarding access to social protection.

And while discrimination based on migrant status is also not “new, the Global Report makes clear that its manifestations in the 21st century are becoming more invidious and harmful, especially in the labour market. In the European Union, for example, reported cases of exploitation of migrant workers have included harassment, long working hours under unhealthy conditions, denial of sick leave, and low wages. UN Women intends to scale up its work in the area of migration, in partnership with the ILO and the UN system, to end violations of the human rights of women migrant workers.

Third, this 100th session of the ILC is also the 60th anniversary of the adoption of ILO Convention No. 100, concerning equal pay for men and women for work of equal value. But we still have not seen a great change in the application of this principle, which is contained in the ILO Constitution itself, and in the 1951 text of Convention 100.

Unequal pay, based simply on the sex of the worker, persists as a major issue across all regions. “Pay Equality Now must become a reality. UN Women's attention to the economic empowerment of women encompasses this objective, and we intend to energize and galvanize the UN system — within each of our mandates — for a concerted push for full understanding of the concept of “equal pay for work of equal value.

Fourth, I want to highlight the crucial importance of strengthened policy coherence for eliminating the continuing challenges to gender equality, so many of which are described in the Global Report before us today. UN Women's comparative advantage includes its new mandate to strengthen coordination within the entire UN system.

And within the UN system we can make a greater impact by working as One UN. As the Global Report states:

Working together in the interests of delivering as one represents an opportunity to project the voice of tripartism in UN action on equality and non-discrimination. The ILO should strive for better cooperation with other UN agencies active in the field of equality and non-discrimination, including the Anti-Discrimination Unit in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) and the relevant UN treaty supervisory bodies and special mechanisms; [and] continue to ensure that Decent Work Country Programmes (DWCPs) are reflected in United Nations Development Assistance Frameworks (UNDAFs) … .

Member States can play a similar role at national level. By encouraging various ministries to work together, governments can help project that well-known workplace advantage out into the broader context. Adopting national employment policies and programmes that reflect national gender equality commitments makes for a stronger, overall, national approach. At the level of actors, national women's machineries can foster greater policy coherence with ministries responsible for labour and with workers' and employers' organizations.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

So much remains to be done, but we must never stop moving towards the goal of gender equality. The Global Report — as I said at the outset — demonstrates gains and gaps. I'm sure that today's discussion will give more examples of progress at the national level. UN Women notes that some 125 countries have outlawed domestic violence; 117 have equal pay laws, and at least 115 guarantee equal property rights. And, in countries in all parts of the world, as we have seen most recently throughout the Arab region, women who once stayed out of the public arena are now standing alongside men to demand freedom and dignity, and the right to participate equally in transforming their societies.

I believe that for many of us gathered here today, the elimination of discrimination epitomizes a vision of a brighter future. This can and must be achieved.

The actions that governments, workers' organizations and employers' organizations take, as of today, to eliminate discrimination represent real strategies that can help to shape our world for the better in a coherent fashion. They can provide a permanent exit route from many of the economic and social crises that confront women and men in different ways.

Action is essential if we take seriously the international commitments, such as those towards non-discrimination contained in the 1998 Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, and wish to build a future where social justice and sustainable economic prosperity prevail.

So let us strengthen our commitment to achieving workplace and employment equality for all men and women, including those most excluded, and be able to say that we — present at the 100th Session of the International Labour Conference — witnessed a re-energized approach to individual women and men's rights, the collective rights of workers' and employers' organizations, for the betterment of families, enterprises, communities, nations, regions and ultimately the whole of humankind.

Thank you.