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Pale, male and stale?

Not today says Sarah Holden who argues unions are at the forefront of campaigns to realise the equalities and anti-discrimination laws

Equal rights are a key priority for the union movement. Trade unions have always been at the forefront of fighting for equality both within the workplace and wider society and have been influential in advancing the lives of our members. From the Equal Pay Act to the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) regulations, trade unions have played their part in making our society a fairer and better place for millions of people.

However, despite the many legal advances we have made, our members still face discrimination within the workplace and this is where unions really come into their own, ensuring that relevant legislation and policies are complied with.

Unions do a lot of good work around the equalities agenda, but despite this they have often been accused of being inward looking, 'talking shops for older white men' or 'pale, male and stale' as it is more regularly put! We are seen as irrelevant and unable to reach out to the wider, changing workforce. So is this a fair criticism?

Move with the times

Unions have had to learn to move with the times and find ways to reach out to these non traditional workers and it is fair to say that while some have probably been more successful than others, you would be hard pressed to find a union without some equalities structures and campaigns, often covering at the very least issues such as equal pay, bullying and harassment and discrimination within the workplace.

Many go much further than that, including my own union Unite, with campaigns covering international women's day and global women's rights, domestic violence, anti-racism and combating the far right and celebrating LGBT and Black History months (February and October, respectively). In addition there are many workplace orientated campaigns covering areas as diverse as women's health and safety, sexual harassment, racist and homophobic bullying and harassment, equal access issues for members with disabilities and not forgetting equal pay.

Women make up a large percentage of our membership and as such we ensure that we run campaigns that are relevant to women at work. Despite having equal pay legislation for over 30 years, women still earn less than men, latest figures showing that the gender pay gap is at 17% with little change over the past few years. This becomes even worse for women working part time, where the pay gap is around 38% and has hardly changed in 30 years. Add to this the career breaks that women take to have children and the slower levels of career progression and then comes a shortfall in women's retirement income, which is just 53% of men's and pushes many into poverty. When we then include issues such as the cost and accessibility of childcare, problems with work life balance and access to flexible working, it is clear that women still face discrimination at work and that it is still relevant and necessary for us to campaign on these issues. Added to this, we will also campaign or negotiate with workplaces and more widely as a union on issues such as domestic violence, health and well being, pregnancy and maternity rights and abortion, reproductive rights, even negotiating for time off for fertility treatment. We aim to ensure we are improving the lives of our women members both at work and within wider society.

Unite doesn't just campaign on women's issues, we have equalities structures and campaigns also covering black and other ethnic minority members (BME), lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members (LGBT), disabled and young members. It is our aim to increase both union membership and participation within these groups.

To help with this, Unite launched an Equalities Reps project earlier this year with match funding from BERR via the union modernisation fund. It aims to develop 400 new equality reps within workplaces across the country, ensuring that they have access to training and recognition from their employer. Equalities reps will help to improve the union's ability to respond to the increasing diversity of the labour market. They supply services and campaigns geared towards the needs of an increasingly diverse membership. Now they are developing new methods of engaging with members who experience discrimination.

Facing discrimination

The project aims to increase both the diversity of our membership and our union reps. Equality reps will be present in workplaces to advise members facing discrimination, helping them take action as well as campaigning and negotiating around equalities issues at work. We are pushing for statutory recognition for equalities reps to ensure that they are protected and have the same rights under law as other reps.

So is this all necessary? We have legal equality now, there are laws in place to protect people, discrimination is frowned upon and we have policies at work. Things are much better aren't they?

Despite the laws we have in place, our members and wider workers still face discrimination, harassment, bullying and prejudice on a daily basis. In a society where a black Caribbean man is likely to earn £300 less than his white counterpart, where 1 in 5 LGBT workers still fear coming out at work and 1 in 4 (in Wales) have been sacked simply because of their sexuality, where you are more likely to be unemployed if you are from a BME community and where access to the workplace is still an impossibility for many of our disabled members, we still have a long way to go to change attitudes and tackle discrimination. So we remain at the forefront, campaigning for equality and diversity at work.