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A Reason To #Remain: How The EU Protected Me From Gender Discrimination

24/06/2016 8:34 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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The most common question I get asked is how I as an Indian woman won a sex discrimination/equal pay lawsuit against an Indian company, Wipro, in the UK courts. The answer is very simple: I was protected by the EU and British equal pay and discrimination legislation.

This lawsuit has taught me many things and one of them is how mature the EU directive actually is in support of women's workplace rights. I came to know the many amendments the EU has enforced upon Britain and on the rest of the EU bloc, which has made discrimination law as powerful, inclusive and broad as it is today.

During my stint as sales director in Europe, at Wipro, I came to know that I was being paid 50% less than my male peers doing the same work in the same grade in the same company. According to the EU equal pay law, it's pretty straightforward -- it's illegal and discriminatory to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same work or work that amounts to equal value.

I was protected by EU's anti-discrimination directives and today I feel obliged to share my experience... about why [women] should vote for Britain to REMAIN in the EU.

Wipro drew out its "deputation policy" as its defence in the courts. Apparently, this policy entitled Wipro to pay me less as I wasn't hired in the UK even though I was doing the same work as local hires. Wipro said that I was paid using a metric called "India employee grid" which took into account marital status (I was single at that time) as an input -- therefore, I was paid less. The judges failed to see the merit, the logic or the application of this "India grid", except as a ploy to pay women less than men. While reviewing this India grid and the pay policies that Wipro presented in the courts, the judgement deemed Wipro's pay policy to be "tainted with gender discrimination".

Ultimately, I won against Wipro for equal pay, sex discrimination, unfair dismissal and five counts of victimization.

I was protected by EU's anti-discrimination directives and today I feel obliged to share my experience with Indian women working in the UK or in any of the 28 EU member countries. I owe them my learnings about why they should vote for Britain to REMAIN in the EU.

As things currently stand, the decision whether the UK will vote "Remain" or "Leave" hangs in the balance. The EU referendum vote will take place on 23 June and sometime on the 24 June the answer to the 'Brexit' question will have been delivered.

The EU has enacted more progressive legislation that has benefited and furthered the cause of women than the UK government has.

For working women, however, the choice is relatively simple. The EU offers women greater protection of their employment rights -- protection against unequal pay, sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Despite all the scaremongering about immigration and sovereignty, the fact remains that the EU has enacted more progressive legislation that has benefited and furthered the cause of women than the UK government has. What is more, its directives have helped to improve gender equality across all its members.

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In recognition of International Women's Day on 8 March, The Economist published "the glass ceiling index" which ranked the best and worst OECD countries for working women. The index was published at the same time data from the World Economic Forum stated that it would take women another 118 years to achieve wage equality at the current rate of progress.

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The glass ceiling index combines data on 10 metrics, including higher education, labour-force participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity rights, business-school applications and representation in senior jobs.

The Nordic countries -- Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland -- score the highest. Taking a closer look at some of the key metrics which make up the glass ceiling index, we find that Finland has the largest share of women who have completed higher education compared with men (49% of women have a tertiary degree, compared with 35% of men); Norway's gender wage-gap (6.3%) is less than half the OECD average (15.5%); Icelandic women hold 44% of seats on company boards, and representation in Scandinavian boardrooms is common thanks to quotas.

Poland which stands tall in 5th position after the Nordic countries has an impressive maternity leave policy of 41.6 weeks as well as paternity leave for two weeks on full pay.

Gender equality is not only a moral or human rights issue. Lack of equality has severe economic consequences.

In 2011, thanks to the French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde's non-comprising stance on gender equality, France's parliament gave final approval for a law forcing large companies to allocate at least 40% of their boardroom positions to women by 2017. The result is that today France stands proud in 7th place, with women now represented in 39.4% of senior management roles. Mandatory quotas have their critics amongst both men and women, but the fact remains that these have forcibly removed many of the roadblocks that have held back well-qualified women for far too long. Now other countries must follow suit.

While many EU countries dominate the toppers' list, beating the OECD average, Britain in 25th place scores just 50 out of a possible 100 against the best in class of 80 according to this study. For women, that should be a cause for concern and a demonstration that much needs to be done to ensure they have access to genuine equal opportunities in the workplace.

Fortunately, the EU can point to a long-standing commitment to human rights and gender equality. For example, it was the EU Equal Pay Directive of 1975 which redefined "the principle of equal pay for men and women" as being "for the same work or for work to which equal value is attributed". And it wasn't an easy change to implement either. In 1982, the European Commission took the UK to court so that the laws could be applied in a broader context. The UK was then forced to amend the Equal Pay Act to include an equal value claim. This greatly helped women to use the Equal Pay Act, as establishing equal value is considerably easier than demonstrating "equal work".

From equal pay, maternity leave and protections during pregnancy, to rules preventing discrimination and harassment, women benefit every day from EU directives.

It's was the EU who pushed for further amendments to anti-discrimination law and by removing the cap on damages paid out, provided the necessary "incentive" to companies to implement and abide by the new regulations. Part-time workers in Britain, the majority of who are women (5.6 million women versus 1.8 million men) are now also entitled to the same pay as full-time workers doing similar work because the practice of lower pay for part-time work heavily discriminated against women. And in 2002, the EU Directive 2002/73/EC offered women further protection against sexual harassment by defining any unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, "with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment", as acts of discrimination under employment law.

Despite the transparency of these facts and data, the Brexiters have made the EU out to be a monstrosity of bureaucracy, a complex financially burdensome entity adding millions in debt and unrestricted immigration to Britain.

That's not a fair picture.

In every relationship there's give and take and in this case the Brexiters have carefully omitted all the valuable benefits that this marriage of 43 years between 28 countries has added to Britain's overall welfare. It's a long list that covers trade benefits, free movement of labour, health and safety, consumer protection, counter-terrorism intelligence and gender equality.

Gender equality is not only a moral or human rights issue. Lack of equality has severe economic consequences. Women who represent half the world's working age population contribute substantially to the strength of the global economy and can deliver so much more if allowed to achieve their full financial potential.

Being in the EU will bind the UK to the rules that support women's rights in the workplace... Brexit will cost women 43 years of progress.

A recent McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report, "The power of parity: How advancing women's equality can add$12 trillion to global growth" states that a "best in region" scenario, in which all countries match the rate of improvement of the fastest-improving country in their region, could add as much as $12 trillion, or 11% in the annual 2025 GDP. In a "full potential" scenario in which women play an identical role in labour markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26%, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.

Being in the EU will bind the UK to the rules that support women's rights in the workplace. From equal pay, maternity leave and protections during pregnancy, to rules preventing discrimination and harassment, women benefit every day from EU directives. Brexit will cost women 43 years of progress.

This referendum is about fairness, about equal pay, about fundamental human rights and economic reality. It's about collaboration, respect and progress. And no other battling stratum of society knows the value of such a referendum more than women. After all they had to earn it the hard way.

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