The speech of Rudy De Leeuw

en,rudy de leeuwDit artikel in het Nederlands

Listen to his speach.

Rudy De Leeuw is the first Belgian national union leader to address a conference for LGBT rights.  He is the president of the ABVV - FGBT. Here you can read his speech, pronounced on Friday, August 2, 2013 at the Human Rights Conference of the World Outgames 2013 in Antwerp.

Dear guests and friends,

I am lucky to be able to speak so early in the day. Apparently, breakfast sharpens the memory. So I’m assuming that what I tell you now, you’ll still know this evening.

Usually, I begin with “Dear comrades”. Today things are a bit different, because I have the opportunity to speak before a very diverse public, one which does not only consist of trade unionists or representatives of the left.

When I was asked to speak at this human rights conference in association with the World Outgames, I said yes at once. Because the ABVV does not only defend its own members in conflicts in the workplace, nor do we just represent our trade unionists in negotiations. As a trade union, we have the social obligation to take care of each other, to watch over the working conditions of all employees and, by extension, over the welfare of every member of our society.

But at the same time I think we should take this as a sign that we must talk about human rights and must organise a conference, for what ultimately should be obvious reasons.

The values of the ABVV - the general Belgian trade union, or in other words the socialist trade union - are those that you find in many a social contract. Solidarity, justice, equality and democracy. These values are and will remain the thread that connects our aims and actions. A democratic society, one in which democracy extends further than politics, is essential for the ABVV. This democracy must also be applied in economic, social and cultural life.

Citizens feel good where these values are respected. I don’t have to tell you that there are countries where people have no chance to develop as fully-fledged individuals because of their sexual orientation. Where, as a consequence, they cannot participate fully in society. Where they are expected to abandon their identity because they do not meet society's expectations in a given social, cultural and historical context. Those who do not conform with these rules risk falling victims of discrimination or prejudice. Under these circumstances, they are asked to do nothing less than to give up their own identity.

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Trade unions play a pioneering role in defending human rights

Trade union rights and equality for all employees are a part of this. Therefore, we are fully committed to respect and equal treatment for LGBT workers.

And if there is discrimination, we don’t stop at words. For example, the temporary work agency Adecco was convicted in 2011 for discrimination because it used “apartheid lists” to screen local and immigrant workers. Vacancies which were only intended for native Belgians were coded as ‘BBB’. ‘BBB’ stands for Blanc Bleu Belge, the name of a pure Belgian cattle breed. The ABVV took Adecco to court. Racism in the temporary work sector can no longer be denied.

And with our annual Equal Pay Day we denounce the continuing unequal treatment of woman and men in the workplace. Through these actions we influence political decision-making, not infrequently without result.

The workplace is the trade unionist’s natural habitat

This early in the morning, I’m not going to bombard you with lots of figures and scientific explanations, but I do have some concerns that I want to share with you. What is the situation in the workplace? As a trade union, we often hear sometimes harrowing stories from employees who are the victims of discrimination, unfair dismissal or harassment because of their sexual orientation. Often the fact that it’s because of this orientation is not made explicit, but under the surface it’s clear to victims and those around them that the reason lies in the fact that they love someone who happens to be of the same sex. Because that is what it comes down to. Whom you love should never be a reason for others to treat you as inferior.

That employees are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is a self-evident fact.

en,rudy de leeuwLGBT people are
1. dismissed,
2. or discriminated against in promotion or training opportunities,
3. or often rejected for a job. Like the case of the temporary agency that recommended a candidate ‘not to mention their homosexuality during the interview with the company’, or the case where a temporary contract was terminated after one day after the employee had revealed his sexual orientation to a colleague.

LGBT people are
1. often afraid to disclose their sexual orientation and conceal it for fear of discrimination and harassment. This fear brings with it a great sense of unease, and means that they avoid any situation in which their orientation can lead to discrimination,
2. reluctant to come out openly,
3. often victims of homophobic intimidation and harassment,
4. undergo verbal and even physical abuse,
5. and often experience intimidation, hostile or aggressive behaviour.

Sexual orientation also has an impact on the course of their careers: choosing a job, a sector or a company that is known to be gay-friendly, or becoming self-employed to escape from homophobia. This means that LGBT people are less positive about their work situation than their heterosexual colleagues. A homophobic climate can lead to more stress, because employees need to keep a low profile but still perform 100%.

When you constantly have to develop strategies to avoid the discovery of your sexual orientation, you have little chance to feel good at work. When you can’t talk about your family like other colleagues, because you’re afraid you'll be ‘unmasked’, you have little chance to feel good. When you have to behave differently from how you are, again you have little chance to feel good.

Our representatives in companies are in the best position to support

The figures from the most recent LGBT survey from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights suggests that 35% of the Belgian respondents had been victims of discrimination in 2012 based on their sexual orientation. But only 12% said they had reported these incidents. In most cases this was “because nothing would happen or change”. These figures demonstrate the huge importance of working to raise awareness and that extra efforts are necessary to encourage victims of discrimination to report incidents. Despite the fact that there is a legal framework, experience shows us that this is not enough.

Our representatives in companies are in the best position to support their colleagues in this. They can call on specialised services provided by the trade union, such as our diversity consultants, our legal services, our study services that formulate advice and recommendations, and the training institutes that arm our representatives with all the means they need.

Along with the anti-discrimination law, the anti-harassmentlaw is another of the legal remedies that employees can call on and where trade unions can play an active part. Employers are required to develop a policy to counter unwanted behaviour. To prevent this conduct and to stop it when it occurs.  When we become aware of an incident of violence, harassment or unwanted sexual conduct, it is important in the first instance that the representative is seen as a confidential contact. Our representatives are aware that it is important to report harassment on the basis of sexual orientation. For as long as such incidents remain hidden and no action can be taken, this discrimination will continue. The use of the anti-harassment law is thus a form of action, a form of resistance against inequality.

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Discrimination in the labour market is a serious problem. Its scale and severity have been extensively documented academically, and the legal approach has been adapted over the years. The various authorities are working towards an effective approach in which the trade unions are actively involved as partners.

Trade unions must extend their campaigns for more equality and against discrimination to LGBT workers. But in our fight against discrimination, we are often confronted with grey areas. Direct discrimination - where it is obvious that you have been excluded from promotion because of your sexual orientation - is clear and straightforward from a legal point of view, and there is a practical measure against it. Indirect discrimination, in contrast, is more difficult to address, but no less discriminatory. How do you react, for instance, when you are faced with a job interview using psychological tests based on the example of heterosexual couples? An LGBT candidate will find it harder to identify with the examples and risks achieving a lower score. The candidate confronted with this will seldom respond by indicating the problem.

All employees have the right to be protected, and that is our task. Because LGBT rights are human rights, and human rights are the business of trade unions.

en,rudy de leeuwCombating discrimination is a trade union fight

As well as tackling social and economic inequalities, it is the task of trade unions to carry on the fight against homophobia and discrimination due to sexual orientation in the workplace and beyond. Because as I have said, it is our role in society to care for the welfare and wellbeing of everyone. The fight against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation involves two important trade union principles: emancipation and the solidarity of employees of both sexes.

We in the trade union movement are particularly proud of achievements for which we have fought hard, such as equality between women and men, living together, sexual freedom, the right to abortion, etc.  And this hard fight has been delivered on several fronts, given that sexual freedom to a great extent depends on the social, political, legal and cultural context. Just think of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which ensured that sex was no longer seen only in terms of reproduction. Heterosexuality was until then the norm from which you simply couldn’t depart. And adultery - in particular by women - was dealt with by law. With the sexual revolution equality between women and men was encouraged and living together was regarded as acceptable. This movement had legal and institutional consequences.

But in practice there is still a long way to go

Socially recommended roles and discriminating conduct persist. Heterosexuality remains the norm in relationships. All too often the discussion about homosexuality is purely theoretical, and the practical aspects are left unmentioned. As long as this discussion takes place, as long as there are prejudices and as long as discrimination is not overcome (in theory and in practice), the trade union movement will fulfil its social role and take action where necessary.

I close with ten practical action points presented by the European Trade Union Confederation and supported by the ABVV - FGTB. I urge all trade unionists present to recommend these action points within their own trade union movement.

1. Make people in your trade union aware that under EU legislation sexual orientation is one of the grounds for non-discrimination and that LGBT rights must consequently specifically be supported by your trade union.
2. Ensure that the leaders in your trade union commit to working for LGBT equality.
3. Establish policy rules for LGBT rights in the workplace and add this area to your trade union’s equality policy, for example to tackle intimidation and harassment in the workplace.
4. Try to recruit and organise LGBT people in the trade union. Make LGBT members visible at every level in the trade union and encourage their participation.
5. Set up an LGBT network and group in your trade union to bring LGBT people together, so that they can help the trade union to develop rules, procedures and practices to promote equality.
6. Provide the resources for a newsletter, e-mails and website to publicise the trade union role in working for more equality for LGBT people. Organise seminars, workshops and conferences to make the work of your trade union in this area more widely known.
7. Mainstream LGBT questions in all areas of trade union work, so they are addressed in the decision-making bodies and in collective bargaining.
8. Ensure that LGBT rights and equality feature in your trade union’s training programmes. Give trade union representatives and negotiators training in LGBT rights.
9. Include LGBT rights in the workplace in the equality policy that you discuss with employers. The lives of LGBT employees can only be improved by tackling workplace discrimination and harassment together with employers.
10. Work as a partner with LGBT organisations and NGOs and organise campaigns and events together.

I repeat that combating discrimination is a trade union fight.

en,rudy de leeuwWe must carry this fight forward with as many partners as possible. Not just as trade unions in companies, but also as social partners in collective bargaining and the conclusion of collective labour agreements. Not just in Belgium, but elsewhere in Europe and the world. We must organise structurally to address the issues that LGBT workers experience, in Belgium together with the other trade unions, in Europe in collaboration with the European Trade Union Confederation and globally with the International Trade Union Confederation. In the International Labour Organization too - where employers, employees and governments sit together - we must ensure that the rights of LGBT workers throughout the world can be guaranteed in the same way.

Because combating homophobia and discrimination is not only a trade union fight. It is a fight which concerns everyone. It is a fight which concerns us all.

Strong together!

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