Dear Commissioner Thyssen, ladies and gentlemen!
I am delighted to be here today, not only speaking to you as the Head of Germany‘s Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency (or FADA), but also, I feel, representing the 42 Equality Bodies of Europe. On behalf of my colleagues, I would like to thank you for this recognition of our work.
In fact, Equality Bodies are on the front line, so to speak, when it comes to implementing equal rights for minorities – not least religious minorities – in Europe. In accordance with the EU Equality Directives, we have the mandate to lend support to victims of discrimination and also be independent. Therefore, Equality Bodies play an important role in the implementation of European legislation. [Mr Zoberi, you have just described very impressively how important intelligent diversity strategies are for European corporations today. A company like yours realized long ago how much a diverse staff does to help you ensure long-term success.]
Lots of [other] enterprises across Europe are leading the way in fostering diversity in the workplace. This is very encouraging indeed. We at FADA on the other hand get to know the cases where things are not running so smoothly. Despite all efforts, it is still very difficult for many people who are at risk of discrimination to get full access to the labour market. In Germany, in the area of discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief, this particularly affects women who don’t get the same professional opportunities because they wear a headscarf.
Let me just give you three examples to highlight this: Like the case of a woman who turned to us for help because her employer didn’t allow her to wear a headscarf. He threatened to terminate her contract immediately if she did not comply with his wishes. Or the case of a mayor who refused to let a girl do a two-week student internship in his town hall, because she was a wearing a headscarf. Or the young woman who applied for an apprenticeship at a dentist’s office. She was repeatedly asked in the application process whether she would be willing to remove her headscarf, and was finally denied the position when she refused.
I am focusing on discrimination relating to headscarves because these are the cases we encounter most frequently in our own daily counseling work. It is also a matter of particular interest on the European level. The European Court of Justice will soon have to decide on the legality of a headscarf ban in the case of a Belgian employer who decided to prohibit all signs of political, philosophical and religious convictions in the workplace.
Anti-Semitism is a very real problem in Germany. Even so, FADA receives just very few complaints that concern discrimination because of the Jewish kippa. But I have to add a word of caution. The complaints that we receive are by no means representative. There may very well be effects of underreporting when it comes to anti-Semitic discrimination. Such discrimination may also occur more frequently outside the workplace. And finally, the situation may also be vastly different in some other European countries. In any case, most of the things that I will say about islamophobic discrimination also apply to anti-Semitic discrimination.
But let us go back to Germany and to the headscarf: 28 percent of Muslim women in Germany wear a headscarf. Research tells us that for them, it is mostly an expression of religious freedom. A large part of society, on the other hand, sees the headscarf very differently. For them it is a political symbol and a sign of the oppression of women. This has a direct effect on the access that young women with headscarves have to the labour market. It has been proven that they suffer proportionally more discrimination the more an employer sees the headscarf as an ideological symbol rather than a personal matter of faith.
Here we find an important connection between the way the state acts and the attitudes of the population and of private enterprises: In a survey among companies in southwest Germany, 41.7 percent of those in charge of recruiting said they would not hire a Muslim apprentice who wears a headscarf, even if they deem her suitably qualified for the job. This is in clear violation of Germany’s Federal Equal Treatment Act. Nevertheless, many of those employers feel they are completely justified. Ultimately, we are often told, it is the state that most prominently bans headscarves, for example for schoolteachers. In fact, several of Germany’s Federal States have passed laws that include such bans.
For years we have tried to send a clear message: Discrimination because of a headscarf is illegal! And headscarf bans that exist for civil servants a) mustn’t be general, and b) cannot be carried over to the private sector. In March, the Federal Constitutional Court overturned the law that banned the wearing of a headscarf in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia. The court found that: "A general headscarf ban for teachers in public schools is unconstitutional." This decision was an important signal for religious freedom that can also have an effect on the attitudes in the private sector.
Unfortunately, we are still getting mixed signals from the political sphere. A few months ago, a young Member of Parliament was sitting in my office. She told me about some of her colleagues who employed young Muslim women as interns – young women who wore a headscarf. Those MPs were deeply impressed by the young women’s performances. But, they had told my visitor, they would never take their interns with them to any public event: After all, people might think they were in favor of the oppression of women.
Ladies and Gentlemen, you can see very clearly from this example the severe consequences that it can have when people are given a label rather than seen as individuals. This is discrimination, pure and simple.
I want to talk about one answer to the specific situation in Germany that FADA has come up with. An answer that is in fact quite common in some of your countries. I am talking about depersonalised application procedures. You may know that traditionally in Germany, job applications not only include virtual libraries of references and certificates, but also invariably a photo. Many groups that face discrimination report being discounted before they even get the chance to ever have a job interview, based only on their foreign sounding name and their face on the photo.
Depersonalized application procedures, where no photo, no names and no personal information are required, can ensure that qualifications are the only things that count. Employers only learn more about an applicant’s identity after they have already invited her or him for an interview. This way, women who wear a headscarf can get a chance to convince a HR person that they otherwise wouldn’t have met. FADA has initiated a pilot project for depersonalised applications which has proven to be a resounding success. 11 of the 16 federal states have followed our lead and have started similar projects.
From large public administrations and ministries to state-owned companies to small and medium-sized private enterprises: many participants have continued to use depersonalised applications after the pilot projects have ended – because they got convincing results. We hope to initiate a small cultural change: It is indeed a big challenge to break with such long standing traditions. But our projects show that it can be done, and ingrained causes of discrimination can be overcome.
But discrimination does not only occur in the labour market. A study that we recently carried out on the housing market using test identities has shown: Young women who were otherwise ideal tenants – meaning they were young, well-educated, and had a good level of income – were significantly disadvantaged if they displayed visible signs of Muslim or Jewish faith. Only about 18 percent of these Muslim and Jewish women were offered a rental contract, compared to 58 percent of supposedly Christian-German testers.
Such cases point to a European dilemma: Unfortunately, in many European countries there is no protection against religious discrimination in areas outside employment. Discrimination that is clearly banned in one member state, may still be legal in others.
A new Equal Treatment Directive, the so-called „Horizontal Directive“, which the Commission first proposed in 2008, would bring legal certainty. Sadly it has for years been blocked in the Council, with Germany playing a particularly deplorable role in hindering progress. If we are serious about fighting islamophobia and anti-semitism, we have to ban religious discrimination in all areas of life. This is just one of the many reasons why Europe needs the Horizontal Directive.
And we have another challenge: We have to make sure people can actually enjoy their rights in those areas where anti-discrimination legislation is already in place. The Equality Bodies in Europe offer legal counseling and make people aware of existing protection. But our legal competences differ vastly between member states, as do our budgets and resources.
That is why Equinet, the European network of Equality Bodies, sees it as crucial to develop EU-wide common standards. Those standards should define how our bodies have to be funded and equipped. They should define how our independence can be guaranteed. And they should define which legal rights we need to effectively support European citizens who are facing discrimination.
Ladies and gentlemen, as different as the situation in various member states may be: If we want to effectively fight islamophobic and anti-semitic discrimination on the labour market and beyond, we will only succeed if such discrimination is clearly and unequivocally banned by European guidelines. And we have to make sure that anti-discrimination legislation is not implemented half-heartedly but that it is seen as a central challenge for democratic and open societies. Thank you very much!