Call to Action: Strengthening Laws Against Workplace Discrimination

When the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) released its 2017 Global Rights Index (GRI)—an assessment of workers’ rights across 139 countries—the United States scored a four, which suggests its citizens face a systematic violation of rights. For reference, a score of five indicates no guarantee of rights while a one, the best, suggests rights are well protected. Among the reasons cited for the nation’s poor showing:

  • Diminished freedom of association via unions
  • Deterioration of collective bargaining rights
  • No tripartite consultative body to address labor law and policy
  • Federal restrictions on worker strikes and boycotts, per the National Labor Relations Act

The following guide examines some of the lapses in U.S. labor law, what other nations are doing, and actions that might improve things for all workers.

State of the Union: Worker Discrimination in America

Legislative gaps listed above are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to workplace challenges. Experts note that there are several additional persistent violations of workers rights despite federal regulations to prevent them. Consider the following:

  • A recent analysis found that anti-black hiring discrimination is just as common in the United States today as it was in 1989.
  • In 2015, about 26 percent of black and 15 percent of hispanic workers reported being treated unfairly in the workplace because of their race in the previous 30 days.
  • Another study found that as of late 2017, more than 40 percent of surveyed women reported experiencing some form of gender discrimination in the workplace—discrimination that extends well beyond the persistent wage gap.
  • About 25 percent of LGBT workers reported experiencing employment discrimination in the last five years.
  • Transgender unemployment is 300 percent higher than the national average.
  • There is no federal law prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In fact only 22 states and the District of Columbia prohibit firing workers based on these traits.
  • Nearly 32 percent of workplace discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2017 were brought by Americans with disabilities, who maintain the lowest employment rate of all analyzed groups.

Fortunately there are steps the U.S. can take to assure a more free and accepting workforce, beginning with examining how other nations get it right.

Five Worker-Friendly Nations Winning at Equality


Denmark is often hailed as one of the happiest countries in the world, and a score of 1 on the GRI suggests its workplaces follow suit. According to the U.S. State Department, Demark law explicitly prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of gender, race, skin color, religion, political affiliations, age, disability, nationality, ethnic origin, social group, sexual orientation and more. Perhaps most importantly, these laws are strictly enforced in civil, or, sometimes, criminal, court.

One of the truly novel ways Denmark ensures worker quality is the way it manages companies: all companies with at least 35 employees must open seats on their boards to regular employees, granting them the same rights and powers as members of top management. Not surprisingly, U.S. News and World Report gave Denmark top-notch marks in gender equality, religious freedom, and human rights on its 2018 ranking of the best countries in the world. Business Insider, The Economist, and the BBC are just a few of the additional publications that have applauded Denmark’s workplace climate.


Who hasn’t heard tales of French workers’ languid lunches, agreeable workweek, and ample vacation time? According to the GRI, citizens can count lack of discrimination among their workplace benefits. The European Equality Law Network reports that non-discrimination is a core principle of French labor law, and has been since the Preamble to the Constitution of 1946, which prohibited discrimination based on sex, race, belief and trade union activity—a move well ahead of its time. In 1958, the language was expanded to ensure equality of “all citizens” regardless of their ethnic origin, race or religion. Today’s Labor Code is the most comprehensive yet, prohibiting workplace discrimination based on origin, gender, morals, sexual orientation, age, marital status, religious beliefs, nationality, ethnicity, race, political views, physical appearance, disability, name, medical condition, or trade union activities.

As a result of its efforts, France ranks highly among Business Insider’s happiest nations for workers, which applauds the nation’s mandatory five paid weeks of vacation and banishment of zero-hour contracts. The Economist also ranked France highly on what it calls its “Glass Ceiling Index” for gender equality.


Like Denmark and most Nordic countries, Iceland regularly finds a home on the many “happiest nation” rankings released each year. Its workplace follows suit. According to the European Equality Law Network and the U.S. State Department, Iceland has more than 15 legislative acts and other measures that preserve workers’ rights. The law does not explicitly prohibit workplace discrimination based on factors like sex, race, sexual orientation, citizenship, political opinion, religion, health, and so on, but only because such practices are strictly illegal in all facets of Icelandic life. Iceland also has one of the highest shares of senior workers and some of the most progressive LGBT-rights laws in the world.

Notably, Iceland holds the top spot on The Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index. Gender equity is so important to iceland that it recently legislated that companies are required to show they pay men and women the same. No honor system here.


South American countries have historically had a mixed showing on the Global Rights Index, yet Uruguay consistently earns top marks. According to the International Trade Administration, Uruguay has passed more than 30 labor laws since 2015, including ones that protect labor unions, reinstate collective bargaining rights, implement regular work hours, regulate outsourcing, and extend the term one has to file a workers’ rights claim.

Uruguay’s labor laws also do plenty to prohibit discrimination. The State Department reports employers cannot do so on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, national origin, citizenship, social group, sexual orientation, age, language, gender identity, health, political opinion or disability. The Department notes the nation’s government effectively enforces all such laws.


Business Insider suggests Austria holds a natural spot on its list of the world’s happiest workers, thanks in part to its high average salaries, five weeks of vacation, 12 bank holidays, and generous maternity leave. The law also protects Austrian workers from all manner of discrimination; its Equal Treatment Act prohibits discrimination based on one’s sex, sexual orientation, religion, age ethnicity, communicable disease status, disability, language, gender identity, or world view.

According to the U.S. State Department, Austria’s Federal Equality Commission strictly enforces all laws prohibiting discrimination, levying penalties and awarding compensation as needed. The Equal Treatment Act protects citizens across all stages of employment, including the application phase.

U.S Labor Rights: How We Can Do Better

If the Global Rights Index and a review of other nations’ practices can teach us anything, it is that the United States has a lot of room for workplace improvement. Employees could certainly do with better regulated work hours, more paid vacation, and paid parental leave, but some of the lapses speak to even more basic rights, like freedom from discrimination and assurance the law will protect that freedom. Suggestions might include:

  • A universal antidiscrimination law that protects LGBTQ and all other workers at the federal level
  • Legislative collective bargaining protections
  • Enhanced union protections, including freedom of association and protest
  • Establishment of a consultative body to help establish and maintain a discrimination-free workforce
  • Stricter enforcement of existing laws, such as those that prohibit discrimination based on sex, race, age, religion, and disability

How to Get Involved

Readers who want to do their part to promote labor rights in the United States can begin by contacting their local, state and federal representatives. There are additionally several labor and human rights organizations operating in and out of the country. Among them:

Aimee Hosler
Aimee Hosler

Aimee Hosler is a long-time journalist specializing in education and technology. She is an advocate for experiential learning among all ages and serves as the director of communications for a non-profit community makerspace. She holds a degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

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