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Trade unions must stand, unequivocally, against anti-LGBTI discrimination at work

Unions have a key role to play in combating oppression and prejudice at work. This includes the ongoing fight for LGBTI equality.

Sandra Vermuyten
17 May 2018

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London Pride Parade, 2009. Photo: Ian Rovertson/Flickr. CC-BY-2.0

To live happily, let's live in the closet? For millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people around the world, this is not just an issue of privacy, but it’s the only way to live full stop, or to escape prison.

Successful LGBTI rights campaigns have won victories, pushing governments to legislate against discrimination. In 2017, almost 1 billion people around the world lived in one of the 25 countries that allow same-sex marriage. In 2000, this did not exist anywhere in the world. Still, same-sex relationships are considered a crime in more than 70 countries, sometimes punishable by death.

At work, LGBTI people continue, to varying degrees, to face mockery and violence, and to see their careers limited by their actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Discrimination starts right from the job search.

In Europe, where legal frameworks are more favourable than in other parts of the world, one in eight LGBTI respondents to a 2013 survey said they have suffered discrimination at work because of their identity, and the percentage goes up to 30% for transgender people.

According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, a third of LGBTI people consider that disclosing their sexual orientation at work can negatively impact their careers, including their salaries. For lesbians, negative impacts may be all the more violent as homophobia is compounded by sexism.

Hiding an element of one's identity from one's colleagues can have terrible consequences for individuals, with many studies showing that the suicide rate is higher among the LGBTI population.

Professionally, one may also be less efficient and engaged in a team when focused on avoiding questions and personal allusions, with the fear of being ‘discovered,’ as shown by a recent Harvard Business Review study.

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Norwegian Nurses Organization marching during the Oslo Pride Parade, 2015. Photo: GGAADD/Flickr. CC-BY-2.0.

All over the world, prejudices remain stubborn. Workplaces, whether private or public, are not yet sufficiently sensitised on this subject. Even companies that have developed ‘diversity’ policies may not explicitly focus on sexual orientation.

There are still too few LGBTI trade union leaders, internal groups of LGBTI employees, or companies, public or private, directly involved in pride marches.

Public service workers have a particularly important role to play in this context. It is up to them to offer public services that are based on equality and respect for diversity, encouraging social and economic justice.

On 17 May, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, we must remember that trade unions have a key role to play in combating prejudices and ignorance in workplaces and in society in general.

LGBTI individuals suffer discrimination in the workplace, workers face exploitation, and migrants and indigenous people face increasingly liberated racist speech. Two global trade union federations, Public Services International (PSI) and Education International have been at the forefront of these battle since 1999, to end discrimination, harassment and violence in the workplace.

It is only through solidarity that trade union representatives and employees in private and public sectors alike can confront such oppression. Trade unions have a duty to help create more inclusive workplaces, including through collective bargaining.

Unions must take a stand, unequivocally, against attacks that challenge LGBTI rights, acquired after hard battles. And they must fight the stereotypes that remain in their own ranks. Defending the rights of LGBTI people means defending universal values of equality and dignity for all.

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