Equal treatment

The principle of equal treatment is based on the idea that all people have equal rights. The right to equal protection of the law is one of the basic human rights, and it is also written in the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia. The requirement of equal treatment is designed to stop restricting the rights of historically excluded population groups and to ensure equal rights and opportunities for everyone, regardless of their identity or origin.

§12 of the Constitution says that everyone is equal before the law. No one shall be treated unequally because of nationality, race, color, sex, language, origin, religion, political or other beliefs, as well as property and social status or other circumstances. The listed properties or characteristics are grounds for discrimination. A person is protected against discrimination precisely because of these grounds, because it is in connection with these grounds that most discrimination has occurred in many societies.

Adherence to the principle of equal treatment requires that persons in an equal situation are treated equally. However, if people are in an unequal situation, it may be necessary to treat them differently, in order to guarantee them equal opportunities to participate in social life. For example, the employer's treatment of disabled or elderly employees that takes into account the special needs is justified. For example, the law stipulates that buildings must be accessible to people with disabilities, etc.

The prejudicial attitude towards different groups in society and the resulting direct or indirect, mostly unconscious, less favorable treatment, i.e. discrimination, increase the risk of poverty and the social exclusion of society members.

The concept of equal treatment is often interpreted as equal treatment. However, the same treatment does not guarantee equality, because people's starting points and opportunities, which mainly depend on the external environment, are different. Achieving real equality requires noticing, fighting against, and actively reducing inequality in society that create inequality, i.e. discriminatory processes.

The Equality Act protects people from unequal treatment because of their nationality, colour, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief.

The protection of the law is different for different grounds. If unequal treatment related to a person's gender is prohibited in all areas of life, then on the basis of, for example, disability, age, religion or beliefs and sexual orientation, the Equal Treatment Act protects a person from unequal treatment only in the field of work, vocational, retraining or further education and membership of an employee or employer association.

How to identify discrimination?

In order to determine whether someone is equal or unequal to someone (or something to something), there must be at least two persons, groups of persons or factual circumstances to compare.

The identification of discrimination requires, above all, the determination of unequal treatment. Next, it is necessary to assess the justification for the difference in treatment. In other words, whether there is a valid reason for such different behaviour. There can only be a reasonable justification for indirect discrimination, but there is no justification for direct discrimination. However, there may be no discriminatory circumstances. For example, if there are two candidates for a job and one of them has a significantly better qualification, work experience and skills than the other candidate with special needs, the non-recruitment of the candidate with special needs would not be considered discriminatory, as a comparable other candidate was objectively more suitable for the job. If the opposite was the case – the candidate with a disability has better skills and qualification, but a non-disabled person would be recruited, it could probably be considered unequal treatment.

If you have doubts and you cannot identify for yourself whether you have been treated unequally or not. Talk to your colleagues, your immediate superior or your HR manager about your concerns. One should never suffer and live in stress.

What does indirect discrimination mean?

Direct discrimination means that someone is treated less favourably in a certain situation on the basis of, for example, their gender, age, nationality, skin colour, beliefs, sexual orientation, disability or religion (clause 3 (1) 3) of the Gender Equality Act and subsection 3 (2) of the Equal Treatment Act). But what does indirect unequal treatment mean and where can we notice it?

Indirect unequal treatment is more difficult to detect than direct unequal treatment, because in the case of indirect unequal treatment a person or a group of people is placed at a disadvantage compared to others due to a seemingly neutral and normal practice, situation, criterion or legal provision (clause 3 (1) 4) of the Gender Equality Act and subsection 3 (4) of the Equal Treatment Act).

In simplified terms, indirect discrimination means that the less favourable treatment does not take place directly - for example, a derogatory comment from an employer about an employee - but takes place indirectly, for example through a work-related claim. The claim may state that promotion requires long-term uninterrupted employment, which seems to be a normal and self-evident criterion, but in fact constitutes indirect unequal treatment between men and women who wish to become parents and take parental leave at some point.

What does direct discrimination mean?

Laws protect people from unequal treatment caused or motivated by a person's characteristics, such as gender, age, nationality, skin colour, sexual orientation, beliefs, etc. The list of characteristics can be found in the Gender Equality Act (subsection 1 (1), clause 3 (1) 3) and the Equal Treatment Act (section 1, subsection 2 (3)). But what does the term direct discrimination or direct unequal treatment mean?

Direct discrimination is when one person is treated less favourably than others in a similar situation due to any of the above characteristics (clause 3 (1) 3) of the Gender Equality Act, subsection 3 (2) of the Equal Treatment Act). Unequal treatment can take many forms, such as unequal treatment in the workplace when the employer makes derogatory comments about age or parenthood.

It is important to understand that equal treatment does not mean that everyone should be treated equally, but that it is important to give people opportunities according to their needs and to treat them in an appropriate way. For example, an employer cannot impose the same conditions and requirements on a person with special needs as on a person without health problems. The nature and needs of the individual must be considered. Nor can an employer claim, for example, that older employees have a slower development speed than younger people, because each person is different in terms of their development ability, nature and physicality.

Direct discrimination, i.e. direct unequal treatment, is prohibited by law and is not accepted in Estonia, so if you notice unequal treatment, steps must be taken to put an immediate end to it. For example, raising awareness can help, as many people are unaware of their discriminatory behaviour based on outdated perceptions and stereotypes. However, if discrimination is intentional, it must be reported to an appropriate body, such as the Labour Inspectorate or the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner.

Why is unequal treatment prohibited in Estonia?

In today's Estonia, people are protected from unequal treatment, but this has not always been the case. Historically, the roles of men and women in both family and social life have been very different. For example, men and women had different rights and different opportunities to shape their own lives and have a say in society.

Although the boundaries of freedom for men and women have expanded today and their rights are generally the same, we are still affected by historical values and preconceptions. Even today, there is a widespread preconception that women should be housekeepers and men should go to work and earn money for their families.

Such outdated attitudes have created a situation where, despite men and women technically having the same rights, their real standings and opportunities are different. For example, unequal treatment of women by employers due to motherhood and having children is widespread, which prevents women from realising their full potential in the labour market.

Historically, different people and groups have been treated less favourably for reasons other than their sex, too. For example, in many societies, people are excluded or persecuted because of their religion, political affiliation, beliefs, sexual orientation, disability, age or ethnicity. Attitudes and fears towards people who are different often lead to unequal treatment and a situation where people cannot truly fulfil their potential in the labour market or in society.

In Estonia, people are protected from unequal treatment based on gender, age, nationality, ethnic background, skin colour, sexual orientation, religion and beliefs. However, equal treatment does not mean that everyone should be treated in the same way; on the contrary, people should be treated according to their needs. For example, people with special needs cannot and must not be treated in exactly the same way as people without health issues. They need to be provided with suitable conditions to live, work and study, and these may differ from those created for people without health issues.

Who is protected by gender equality and equal treatment laws?

Unequal treatment is prohibited by law in both the private and public sectors. To ensure equal treatment for women and men, the Gender Equality Act and the Equal Treatment Act have been established to protect both men and women from unequal treatment.

These laws protect people from ill-treatment based on a person's identity, such as gender or nationality. The Gender Equality Act applies to cases where the characteristics of a person are related to their gender, including pregnancy, childbirth, parenthood, performance of family obligations or other circumstances related to gender. According to the Equal Treatment Act, discrimination can be based on grounds of nationality (ethnic origin), race, colour, religion or other beliefs, age, disability or sexual orientation.

The purpose of these laws is to protect minority groups and the people who belong to them in the areas of life and situations specified in the law.

The requirements of the Gender Equality Act and the Equal Treatment Act apply in almost all areas of life, with some exceptions, such as circumstances involving family, private life and registered religious associations. In addition, it is prohibited to treat people less favourably in an employment relationship due to fulfilment of family responsibilities, social status, representation of the interests of employees, membership in an association of employees, language skills and fulfilment of conscription obligations.

Both laws impose an obligation of equal treatment, meaning that no one may be treated unequally in relation to the characteristics listed in the law (i.e. gender, nationality, etc.). Equal treatment means the absence of unequal treatment.