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U.N. study sees
subtle discrimination

U.N. study sees
subtle discrimination

The disabled, gays and lesbians, and people living with HIV/AIDS are suffering from new and more subtle forms of workplace discrimination, the U.N. labor agency in Geneva said Thursday.

And despite major advances in the fight against discrimination, gender, race, and religion continue to determine how people are treated in the employment market and at the workplace, the International Labor Organization said in its flagship report on global working conditions.

Women are especially prone to labor discrimination, the ILO said in outlining only a mixed bag of success since the last installment of its ''equality at work'' series four years ago.

''It's striking to see how everywhere in the world, irrespective of how rich or how poor a country is, or what type of political system it has, discrimination is there,'' said Manuela Tomei, author of the 127-page report. ''Discrimination is a never-ending story of human nature. But it's something that society can no longer tolerate.''

While more women are joining the workforce around the world, they continue in every geographical region to be paid less than men for the same jobs, the report said.

And underlining the persistence of the ''glass ceiling'' preventing female employees from winning top posts, the agency said women still represent only ''a distinct minority'' in legislative and senior official or managerial positions. Their share is over 40% in the United States and Canada, but only 11% in the Middle East and even less in India and other South Asian countries.

''Many countries collect wage statistics by sex but don't even publish them'' because they think they are unimportant, Tomei told the Associated Press. ''This is very common in Asia.''

The report, citing 2004 figures, said women earn at least 30% less than men for manufacturing jobs in Asian countries, including Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. But the gap also prevails in Europe, where women in manufacturing earn less than 80% of what men make in Austria, Great Britain, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Switzerland. Bahrain was the worst of 37 countries in the comparison, while Sweden and Australia were the best. U.S. data was not available for comparison, the ILO said.

Laws in many countries bar employers from asking women whether they plan to have children, but they are frequently flouted, Tomei said. Employers around the world are also finding more subtle means to discriminate against people based on the color of their skin or their ethnic nationality, she added.

''The term 'good appearance' can simply mean light-skinned or tall, thereby excluding certain racial groups,'' she said. ''The height requirement is another indirect form. You don't need to have a certain height to be a receptionist or sell books.''

The report said some simple improvements in the workplace--a Braille keyboard or use of the most rudimentary sign language--could level the playing field for a number of people suffering from impairments, such as the blind and the deaf. It said many of the 470 million people of working age with disabilities could make valuable contributions in working environments that offer them a chance.

Discrimination against gays and lesbians ''has only recently been recognized as intolerable'' by many nations, Tomei said, but noted that homosexuality remains illegal in over 75 countries, ''subject to corporal punishment and even the death penalty.''

The use of AIDS tests is ''extremely widespread'' in screening job seekers, despite laws specifically targeting the practice, Tomei said. ''Many people are subject to AIDS tests without even knowing it,'' she added.

Another increasingly worrying practice is genetic screening, which employers sometimes use to eliminate prospective employees thought to be predisposed to leukemia or other genetic diseases, the report said. It said ''unhealthy lifestyles'' is a criterion being used to discriminate against the obese, smokers, and others.

The 180-nation ILO--which brings together governments, employers, and unions--said the near-universal condemnation of workplace discrimination has been a major step forward in labor rights, even if the commitment to equal rights is often lukewarm.

The organization's 1951 protocol demanding equal remuneration for men and women, radical at the time of its drafting, has now been signed by 163 ILO members, with a number of Arab states abstaining. Thailand and Singapore are among those yet to ratify a 1958 accord banning all forms of employment discrimination.

While Americans were prominent in shaping both conventions, the United States stands alone as the only industrialized nation yet to commit to either the equal-pay or antidiscrimination accords. (Bradley S. Klapper, AP)

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