Positive Action

Kevin Savio Marc Coutinho and José Luis Silvestre. Collaborators Centre for Diversity. Instituto de Empresa

25 April 2005

Race and immigration have again become hot issues in Europe. The European Union’s (EU) Racial Equality Directive, and concerns about immigrant integration means employers must understand the law and how business can benefit from the changing environment.

Spain is seeing an increase in non-national residents. Figures for 2003 show 2.7 million non-nationals, compared to 637,000 in 1998. Around 39 percent were from Central and South America, mainly Ecuador, Columbia and Argentina; 15 percent from Africa; a minority of 22 percent from other EU states. These figures exclude those who settled in Spain with Spanish nationality. The pattern is similar to France and the U.K.’s: immigration comes from neighboring states or former colonies sharing linguistic and cultural ties. Changes are most evident in big cities, where greater diversity is visible through people and services catering for changing consumer needs.

The law provides a framework in which to state society’s values, and supplies mechanisms to manage this change. There are several sources of law, including international conventions (the U.N. Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination) and municipal or national legislation. The EU Racial Equality Directive is the most significant development in recent years; it creates a minimum common standard for tackling race relations and discrimination across the 25 EU member states. It outlaws discrimination by race and national or ethnic origin in training, employment and provision of goods and services to anyone within the Union (irrespective of citizenship ). It shifts the burden of proof to the respondent once a prima facie case of discrimination has been established in civil proceedings.

One of its more interesting aspects is Article 5, which concerns positive action. It recognizes that making equality a reality means initiatives may be called for to redress historic inequalities. In other words, the Directive permits initiatives that empower people to reach the starting line of a recruitment competition without crossing over to positive discrimination or affirmative action. This distinction is nuanced and may trouble some who feel it is in fact discriminatory. But it would be naïve to believe that simply outlawing discrimination would create equal opportunity for everyone.

Private and public action

In explaining this, it may be useful to examine other European attempts at positive action. Since application of the U.K.’s Race Relations Act 1976 , organizations have been able to provide training and educational opportunities where there is underrepresentation of specific racial groups. This has generated a raft of initiatives that work to educate and train people so labor-market entry or access to particular training is possible. These programs help create leadership cadres from within the targeted communities that provide a long-term anchor for social minorities and positive role models for future generations. In addition to government commitment , what has been interesting has been the investment of the private sector; it has either partnered or individually begun positive-action programs to support education participation, training and profile-raising for ethnic minorities and employees inside organizations. This has raised participation and employment outcomes. Yet despite these efforts, employment experiences for British ethnics remain lower, in terms of wages and status. Underrepresentation at senior levels in organizations still persists.

It will be critical to ensure immigrants (and their children and grandchildren) the opportunities to access jobs and careers that today’s Spaniards take for granted. This is as important for government as it is for business, and not only because of social justice. Spain and immigrants’ countries of origin can make potential gains by using networks belonging to the immigrant communities and their families to increase trade and access these markets. Furthermore, demographic trends indicate that Spain, like most European countries, has an aging population that would benefit from drawing more workers to the social services. These realities make integrating available human resources a sensible, long-term strategy to ensure talented labor is trained and used effectively, and competitiveness sustained.

Elimination of racial discrimination is a social and moral good. Development of a European framework demonstrates the commonality of experience and the importance anti-discrimination has within the Union. It also highlights the impact that every business and civic leader can have in achieving this goal while ensuring organizational success.


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