Belfast Telegraph

How vigilance keeps bias out of workplace

As the Equality Commission publishes its annual report, Chief Commissioner Bob Collins argues that fair employment measures are still relevant today

Monitoring the composition of the workforce in Northern Ireland is probably the best known aspect of the revised fair employment legislation introduced in 1990. Through the publication of the annual Monitoring Report, we have been highlighting trends in that composition for two decades now.

A remarkable amount has changed since 1990 - at that time we still lived in a cold war, two-bloc world; globalisation was still just a speculative phrase, rather than a description of pervasive economic reality. In Northern Ireland, society was still enmeshed in campaigns of violence and political stalemate. Manufacturing, then dominated by heavy engineering and textiles, accounted for 47.6% of the private sector workforce - now it accounts for 22.7%.

That was the context in which the Fair Employment Act 1989 introduced innovative proposals to tackle one problem which had long been identified as central to community tensions and divisions - fair participation in employment.

As well as introducing compulsory annual monitoring by employers of the community composition of their workforce, by reporting on the number of Protestants and Catholics they employed, the Act also introduced two other important provisions - three yearly equality reviews and affirmative action measures.

Employers in both the public and private sectors have been implementing these provisions over the past 20 years working with, firstly, the Fair Employment Commission and, since 1999, the Equality Commission. There have been positive changes in the degree of fair participation in the overall Northern Ireland workforce within that period.

In 1990, when the Monitoring Report covered firms of more than 25 employees, Catholic employees were 34.9% of the monitored workforce for whom a community background was identified, which was 5.1 percentage points less than the estimated 40% of those available for work who were Catholics.

Twenty years on that overall imbalance no longer exists. Today's report, based on firms of more than 10 employees, shows that Catholics constitute 45.4% of the monitored workforce, which matches the current estimated percentage of Catholics available for work.

The report also reveals a continuation of a trend which has been developing throughout the past decade - a change in the community composition of applicants for jobs. The Catholic proportion of all monitored applicants has been rising steadily since 2001 when it stood at 44.8%.

In 2007 applications by Catholics exceeded those from Protestants, albeit by a small number and the 2009 returns show a continuation of this trend. There were 10,465 more applications from Catholics, who now represent 51% of applicants, than from Protestants, who represent 49%.

Overall figures, of course, do not and cannot give the entire picture. There are still quite a number of workplaces where there is under-representation of one or other community.

And there are changes in patterns of participation such as, for example, reductions in the numbers of Protestants entering employment.

Not every such change is a mark of unfairness but the legislation gives us an opportunity to pay careful attention to what the data shows.

We have to consider these changes in the context of the changing demographics in the population. The 2001 Census showed that, in every five-year age group of those under 25, Catholics represented over 50%. That works its way up the age scale in succeeding years and it is a reasonable estimate that, of those now in the 16-34 age groups, Catholics represent some 52%.

One cannot, of course, assume that this trend is the complete explanation, for example, of the shift in applicant composition, but it is likely to be an important factor.

Assumptions, however robust, are not enough. We have to consider how substantially our society has changed, in almost every respect, when we consider the composition of the workforce.

A great many workers from other countries now make their careers and their homes here. New, knowledge-based industries are growing in our economy. Economic forces can have an important influence on workforce composition. So, too, can educational attainment.

It is important that we obtain as much factual information as possible to give us a greater understanding of these changing patterns.

This underlines the importance of the other initiatives introduced 20 years ago, which complement the monitoring provisions.

Using the three-yearly comprehensive equality reviews, employers look at employees, at applicants, at appointments and at those who leave. This regular analysis gives them a deeper insight into the dynamics of their own workplaces and offers the basis for affirmative action measures if, for example, they identify an under-representation of either community, or evidence of "chill factors" in the workplace. Affirmative Action programmes are a feature of around 200 workplaces and indicate the continuing engagement of employers with this important issue.

We know that these measures have had an impact on fair participation in workforces in Northern Ireland.

Employments where that focus has been applied through an equality review, and where affirmative action measures have been taken, have been more effective in increasing fair participation.

There is a continuing need to be alert to the question of fair participation, especially in a time of economic and demographic change and in a time when unexpected patterns may emerge. The legislation has an enduring relevance to the issues and challenges now facing us in the 21st century.


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