So. Nigel Farage has said, in an interview with former equality commissioner Trevor Phillips, that he'd get rid of "most" discrimination law, as "the employer should be much freer to make decisions on who he or she employs." Most of the furore over this interview is likely to be justifiably centred on Farage's scare-mongering about Islamic immigrants who want to kill us all. But his comments about anti-discrimination law reveal another, oft-forgotten side of Ukip we should all be worried about: they're not just after immigrants, they're after workers too.
Farage explains his beliefs by stating that the legislation is now "irrelevant", implying that the UK has left all those nasty, pernicious bigotries behind. Two things undermine him on this. The first is his statement, on why there wouldn't be racial discrimination law under Ukip, that his party is "colour-blind". Members of your own party have publicly stated a dislike of "negroid features", Nige - it doesn't seem like you're in any position to start trying to teach the world to sing.
The second is that workers are still winning discrimination cases all the time. In addition, there's absolutely no way of counting the number of cases the law prevents, but anecdotally I can say that in my short time as a union rep I've already heard of unions using anti-discrimination laws to stop disabled workers being constructively dismissed, women working outside at airports being refused warm winter uniforms because they're expected to look pretty and a jumper would cover up their tits, and black workers being paid less than white ones because "there has been an oversight".
Because people generally start snoozing at the word "legislation", here in bite size form is an explanation of discrimination laws and what they do, and what we'd lose if Nige got his way. Before I begin, can I just remind everyone that the UK is already one of the most regular violators of workers rights in the world thanks in part to endless deregulations. This stuff below is the last thing stopping us from being legally defined as worker ants.
What is discrimination?
It can come in two forms, direct and indirect.
Direct is basically when your employer is being a dick to you because of your gender, race, age etc (see list below). This could include, for example, stopping amputees from working on shop floors because they ruin the aesthetic, bullying someone going through gender reassignment, paying women less than men or vice versa, or sacking a woman who gets married or pregnant because you're an arsehole who thinks this will affect her ability to do her job.
Indirect is being an arsehole without really meaning to be. For example, taking part of a woman's job away from her because of a preconception that she needs a lighter workload during pregnancy, or telling someone to take off their crucifix necklace because it clashes with a corporate image.
Both direct and indirect discrimination are against the law. If your employer does it, you can take them to a tribunal (fees paid by your union, if you're a member, by yourself if you're not).
Who is protected against discrimination?
More or less everyone. The "protected characteristics" defined in the Equality Act are:
- Gender reassignment
- Marriage and civil partnership
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief
- Sex or gender (yeah, either gender, guys)
- Sexual orientation
What does protection against discrimination mean?
Basically it means bigoted employers can't just fire people or harass them at work. Farage seems to have a massive problem with this, which I struggle to understand seeing how much he wails whenever he's even slightly picked on for holding his own particular set of beliefs.
It's not a barrage of red tape though, and it can't protect you against an employer whose lovely enough to bully all of their employees regardless of age, race, gender or disability. It just means you have the right to be treated the same as your colleagues, and that might mean your employer making reasonable adjustments to allow you to do your job - like installing ramps if you're in a wheelchair or taking down pictures of topless women in offices if this is harassing the women who work there.
What would it mean if this all wasn't in place?
If you've not got it already, it would mean that the UK was just a bloody horrible place to work.
Imagine no legal protection against being sacked if you fell pregnant, not being able to take action if your boss kept flinging the n word at you, being unable to stop bullying if you were gay, suddenly losing your job if you had a sex change - even imagine something incredibly basic which might happen to all of us: being sacked for getting old. And then imagine having to leave that job and going somewhere else and it being exactly the same. Even if you're a young, straight white man, a lack of discrimination legislation would affect every woman you know, every gay friend you have, and yourself if you ever became disabled or seriously unwell.
History shows that unless workers demand their rights and have them put in place by law, employers and the government take this piss. The legislation Farage wants to get rid of wasn't put in place by an overpaid quango who had nothing better to do, but by working people campaigning and protesting for over a century. When someone leading the third biggest party in the country can dismiss that history so casually, there is more need for these laws and protections than ever.
This post first appeared on Rebecca's blog, A Bit of Class, and can be read here