Equal treatment in employment and occupation

Equal treatment in employment and occupation

Outline of the Community (European Union) legislation about Equal treatment in employment and occupation


These categories group together and put in context the legislative and non-legislative initiatives which deal with the same topic.

Employment and social policy > Employment rights and work organisation

Equal treatment in employment and occupation

Document or Iniciative

Directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000, establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation.


Combating discrimination is a major challenge for the European Union. The Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the rule of law. Hence the EU must take all measures necessary to combat discrimination of all kinds, notably as regards employment and the labour market.

Employment and occupation are crucial to ensuring equal opportunities for all and in large measure contribute to the full participation of citizens in economic, social and culture life. However, many cases of discrimination have been identified in the field of employment and the labour market.

Article 13 of the EC Treaty, introduced by the Treaty of Amsterdam, specifically empowers the Community to combat discrimination based on sex, race or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.

The Member States ban discrimination in the field of employment and occupation. However, the scope of this prohibition, its content and enforceability vary from country to country. Hence this Directive is designed to lay down a general minimum framework in this area.


The proposal concerns the following areas:

  • conditions of access to employed or self-employed activities, including promotion;
  • vocational training;
  • employment and working conditions (including pay and dismissals);
  • membership of and involvement in an organisation of employers or workers or any other organisation whose members carry on a particular profession.

This applies as much to the public sector as to the private sector including public bodies as well as for paid and unpaid work.

The concept of discrimination

The proposal for a directive aims to combat both direct discrimination (differential treatment based on a specific characteristic) and indirect discrimination (any provision, criterion or practice which is neutral on its face but is liable to adversely affect one or more specific individuals or incite discrimination). Harassment, which creates a hostile environment, is deemed to be discrimination. Reasonable arrangements must be made to guarantee the principle of equal treatment for disabled persons, limiting it to cases which do not involve unjustified difficulties.

Cases in which differences in treatment are authorised

  • Genuine occupational qualifications

In certain cases differences in treatment may be justified by the nature of the post or the conditions in which the job is performed.

  • Differences in treatment on grounds of age

Differences in treatment on grounds of age are permissible when they are objectively and reasonably justified by a legitimate labour market aim and are appropriate and necessary to the achievement of that aim (protection of young people and older workers, requirements as to the extent of job experience, etc.).

  • Positive action

Member States have the right to maintain and adopt measures intended to prevent or compensate for existing inequalities (measures to promote the integration of young people, the transition from work to retirement, etc.).

Minimum requirements

The proposal contains a “non-regression” clause which concerns Member States whose legislation provides for a higher level of protection than that afforded by the Directive.

Remedies and application of the law

Despite affirmation of the principle of equal treatment between men and women by Community law, enforcement of this principle has proved extremely difficult in practice. For this reason the proposal includes a series of mechanisms to ensure effective remedies in the event of discrimination.

These mechanisms rely on:

  • improvement of legal protection by reinforcing access to justice or to conciliation procedures (both in the form of individual access and by empowering organisations to exercise this right on behalf of a victim;
  • shifting the burden of proof: once facts have been established from which it may be presumed that there has been discrimination, the burden of proof lies with the defendant, in compliance with Directive 97/80 and the case law of the Court of Justice in the case of sex discrimination;
  • protection of victims of discrimination against reprisals, and notably dismissal;
  • dissemination of adequate information on the Directive’s provisions (once adopted) to vocational training and educational bodies and within the workplace.

The social partners have a crucial role to play in combating discrimination. Hence Member States must take adequate measures to promote the social dialogue between the two sides of industry with a view to fostering the principle of equal treatment, through the monitoring of workplace practices, codes of conduct, exchange of experiences and good practices, etc.

Discriminatory national provisions must be abolished or declared null and void. Sanctions will be imposed by Member States in the event of infringement of the principle of equal treatment.

The Member States must communicate to the Commission, within two years of the entry into force of the Directive and then every five years, all the information necessary for the Commission to draw up a report to the European Parliament and the Council on its application.

The Directive includes a impact assessment form in respect of companies and in particular SMEs.


The Directive is part of a series of measures aiming to combat discrimination. Besides this act, the package includes a Communication from the Commission outlining the general framework of the action taken, a Directive on the equal treatment on grounds of racial and ethnic origin as well as an action programme to combat discrimination (2001-2006).

The Directive does not take into account discrimination on gender grounds as this principle is already part of Community legislation (in particular Council Directive 76/207/EEC of 9 February 1976 on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions and Council Directive 86/613/EEC of 11 December 1986 on the application of the principle of equal treatment between men and women engaged in an activity, including agriculture, in a self-employed capacity, and on the protection of self-employed women during pregnancy and motherhood.


Act Entry into force Deadline for transposition in the Member States Official Journal
Directive 2000/78/EC



L 303 of 2.12.2000

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