ICLP Round Table: The Equality Bill 2019 – Comparative Perspectives

(This is a guest essay, authored by Professor Sandra Fredman, who is Rhodes Professor of Law at the University of Oxford. It is the third essay in the ICLP Blog’s Round-Table on the Centre for Law and Policy Research’s Draft Equality Bill 2019. The first two essays are available here and here).

India is unusual in that the provisions guaranteeing equality in the Constitution have not yet been supplemented by comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation comparable to that in other jurisdictions, such as the US, South Africa or the UK. Anti-discrimination legislation plays an important role in giving specific content to constitutional guarantees. It can also bind individuals and corporations, thus extending the reach of the right to equality beyond the State into key sites of discrimination, such as employment, housing, education, healthcare and goods and services available to the public.  The proposed Equality Bill drafted by Jayna Kothari and her colleagues at the Centre for Law and Policy Research is thus very much to be welcomed and she and her team deserve to be congratulated on the quality and reach of the proposal. This post takes a comparative perspective on the Bill, while of course being sensitive to the very different context in which the new legislation will function.

There are many aspects of the Bill that demonstrate positive advances on relevant comparators, such as the UK Equality Act 2010 (EA) and EU legislation. This is particularly so for the definition of direct discrimination. Direct discrimination has traditionally been defined as occurring when a person is treated less favourably than another due to a protected characteristic. The need for a similarly situated comparator, however, has raised complex issues both in principle, because it requires conformity with a dominant norm as a gateway to equal treatment, and in practice, where the choice of comparator can be contested. This has most saliently occurred in relation to pregnancy, with the sad spectacle of tribunals and courts in earlier decades refusing to accord pregnant women the same treatment as men because there is no appropriate male comparator. The EA addressed this problem by replacing the requirement for a comparator with the simple need for detrimental treatment. But this only applies in relation to pregnancy (and disability in limited circumstances), The Indian Bill takes a step further and gives both possibilities in the alternative, available for all protected characteristics, not just pregnancy.

The Bill is also important in that it aims to address structural discrimination in various forms. While the EA addresses such discrimination solely through indirect discrimination, which focuses on the effects of apparently neutral practices, provisions or criteria, the Bill also includes a provision expressly defining ‘systemic or structural discrimination,’ defined as hidden or overt patterns of institutional behaviour, cultural traditions and social norms that discrimination against individuals with protected characteristics. The Bill’s definition of indirect discrimination, is however, interesting in that it does not include the usual justification defence for respondents, permitting the latter to demonstrate that the provision is proportionate to a legitimate aim (such as a requirement for a relevant qualification which might be necessary for a job even though it excludes a disproportionate number of people with a protected characteristic). 

The Bill is impressive too in the wide range of characteristics which it classifies as protected against discrimination. Although many of the listed characteristic can be found in international or regional sources, the Bill contains several important additions, including linguistic identity, migration, refugee status, occupation and food preference. The Bill also transcends the straight-jacket of the Constitutional equality provisions, which only list a set number of protected characteristics. Instead, its list is non-exhaustive, including a provision by which analogous grounds can be included if they fit the principles in the Bill. In addition, the Bill makes express provision for addressing intersectional discrimination. Notably, the Bill includes socio-economic status as a protected characteristic. While this is a welcome move, this formulation runs the risk of protecting the stronger as well as the weaker sections of society. This might open the way to claims by advantaged persons that provisions such as higher taxes for wealthier persons might be challenged as discriminatory on grounds of socio-economic status. The drafters might instead want to use an expressly asymmetric term such as socio-economic disadvantage.

One aspect of the  Bill which might also need further attention concerns the scope of the protection for workers. Given that over 80% of employed persons in India earn their living in the informal sector in India,  dwarfing the formal sector in magnitude, a key initial question is the extent to which non-standard workers are protected. This is a highly challenging issue, and there are few modern positive precedents for its resolution. In particular, most labour law systems confine eligibility for employment protection to workers working under a contract of employment, excluding self-employed, non-standard workers. Discrimination law in the UK extends to some self-employed workers, provided they work under a contract to provide a personal service; but this too has opened up a large number of loopholes for those attempting to sidestep their obligations.

The Bill certainly takes important steps towards inclusion of non-standard workers, such as including employment agencies in the prohibition on discrimination, and mentioning domestic workers in the definition of employer. However, the way in which ‘employee’ is defined might still exclude some of the most vulnerable workers outside of the formal sector. ‘Employee’ is defined as any person ‘employed on wages in any establishment, factory, company or shop.’ An Uber driver who is discriminated against because he is Muslim, a woman agricultural worker  who is sexually harassed, or an own-account worker who is paid less because of race, caste or migration status, might find it difficult to bring themselves within this definition. One way forward is to provide separate protection for self-employed workers who are discriminated against by clients or customers, similar to the protection for consumers or users of public accommodations. Another is to replace the use of ‘wages’ with earnings, and give less emphasis to the workplace as the site of work.  Also of importance is to bring the provisions for equal pay for work of equal value in the Equal Remuneration Act into closer alliance with the Bill.

The Bill is also noteworthy in its inclusion of proactive duties, closely resembling the  ‘fourth generation’ equality duties found in the EA. Such duties are important in their recognition that individual complaints of discrimination will never be sufficient to address the structural causes of discrimination. Proactive duties on the part of the State are crucial in discerning and changing such systemic patterns, as well as taking the burden off individual complainants. The Public Sector Equality Duty in the Bill tracks closely onto its UK equivalent by requiring all appropriate authorities to ‘have due regard to the need to’ eliminate prohibited conduct under the Act, remove or minimize disadvantage, and encourage participation. It goes somewhat further than the EA in that due regard should also be had to taking steps to meet the need of persons with protected characteristics. However, given the extent to which the ‘due regard’ standard under the EA has become little more than a ‘tick-box’ procedure, the drafters might consider strengthening the requirement. For example, rather than requiring authorities to ‘have due regard’ to the need to eliminate prohibited conduct, the drafters might consider requiring authorities actually to eliminate such conduct, which is prohibited in any event. Similarly, rather than imposing a duty to have due regard to the need to take steps, they  might think of imposing a duty to actually take the steps.  Nor would this be pushing the boundaries too far, given that the previous clause requires the State to take measures to promote equality.

Even more welcome would be the inclusion of a duty to have regard to the need to reduce economic inequalities. A similar duty was inserted into section of the EA, which required public authorities, when exercising strategic functions, to have regard to the desirability of reducing socio-economic inequalities. Despite being a very mild obligation, this provision has never been brought into effect, despite remaining on the statute book, so that there is no experience of its workings. For the Indian Bill, it would not be too large a step to include such a duty, given the emphasis in the preamble on eradication of socio-economic inequalities, and the inclusion of socio-economic status in the list of protected grounds. Consideration might even be given to strengthening the obligation.

All in all, this is a very welcome intervention, and it is to be hoped that it will soon find its way onto the statute books.

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