Turning the workplace into a school playground
The new UK Equality Act treats all workers as pathetic victims who need the state as a big, caring brother.
While New Labour now seems as dated as combat trousers, superstar djs and Blair vs Brown, those trends which bore it aloft for 13 inglorious years are, it seems, still giving the political class some semblance of purpose. So it was that last week the Equality Act, a piece of legislation ridden roughshod over various freedoms by New Labourette Harriet Harman, finally came into force.
The Lib-Cons haven’t let it pass into law entirely unaltered. It doesn’t yet force religious organisations to adhere to anti-discrimination legislation. And it doesn’t, as Harman hoped it would, force companies to reveal gender pay disparities. Still, it’s a mark of the Lib-Con fear of being tainted by New Labour’s past that they attempted to pass off the Equality Act as little more than a tidying up of existing legislation. Which is true to a certain extent. Hence the act brings together legislation governing unlawful discrimination, including the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the Equality Act 2006, Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003, Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 and Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007… It is definitely one for the bureaucrat’s photo album.
But the Equality Act is not simply a matter of bringing together a whole heap of discrimination legislation into one package. For a start it contains a number of new bits of legislation. The most notable of these is the concept of ‘third-party harrassment’. So while it was already an offence for an employer to pick on an employee on the basis of race or gender, an employer will now be liable for any employee ‘harrassment’, too. This means that if someone at work feels that someone else’s comments ‘violate their dignity’ or create an ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’, they can sue their employer. For those perhaps unfamiliar with the lexicon of offence, this means that office banter and office bitching could become criminal offences. All it takes is for one person to deem an interaction a ‘violation of their dignity’ and in comes the state to arbitrate.
To add to what already looks like becoming an absurdly draconian response to teasing Theresa or mocking Majid, the Equality Act also defines something called ‘discrimination by perception’. That is, a person does not have to have the characteristic (ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, gender) being discriminated against – they merely have to be discriminated against on the assumption that they do. This would make it a potential offence to make fun of a straight guy on the basis that he seems gay.
Discrimination here seems to lose touch with any of the rationale for harrasment. Instead, discrimination becomes a free-floating term to be applied to any relationship in which one party feels aggrieved. When feelings of victimhood are enough to sustain an accusation of discrimination, so people will self-censor and wilfully inhibit themselves – not because they actually really wanted to bully someone, but because they are worried that this is how their behaviour could be perceived.
While office banter, bitching and back-biting might well be childish, that is no excuse for turning the workplace into a primary school. Under the Equality Act, that is precisely what is happening. Adults are being treated like children, incapable of managing their own relationships, let alone standing up for themselves. We are being encouraged to internalise a child-like mentality, so that when Margaret says something nasty we snitch. Unlike school, however, it is not a teacher managing the children’s relationships, but the state, with all the punitive power that entails.
Insofar as it reinforces a sense of ourselves as helpless in the midst of social life, the Equality Act gives institutional form to some of the most retrograde social trends. On the one hand it further entrenches the state in the private sphere, allowing it to mediate not just employer-employee relations but employee-employee relations. And on the other hand it legally enshrines members of civil society as potential victims in need of the state’s outstretched hand.
The very idea of workplace bullying illustrates this profound change in our relationship with others and our relationship with the state. In the past, the antagonism of an employer, the discrimination of an employer, would not have been met with a plea for state intervention. Instead one would have primarily turned to one’s workmates for support. And sometimes that support, that solidarity, might have taken a more political form. Indeed, one saw one’s colleagues not simply as ruthless career rivals, sexual predators and racists, but as people with shared interests, not opposing ones. But now, with the Equality Act its shining bureaucratic embodiment, it is more a case of every victim for themselves, with the state attempting to pose as everyone’s friend. It is a twisted universalism that assumes society to consist of little more than conflicting identities, each as vulnerable to offence as the next.
Given the desperation to be more victimised than thou, it is perhaps predictable that self-styled progressives have been criticising the Equality Act not on the basis that it is an affront to adulthood, but on the basis that its infantilising clasp is not tight enough. No one in the private sphere ought to be trusted, it seems. So we had Ceri Goddard from the gender equality campaign group the Fawcett society just wishing the state would go further: ‘Rowing back on the requirement for big business to publish and take action on any differences in pay between men and women employees is tantamount to endorsing the shocking gender pay.’ Elsewhere, we had the British Humanist Association complaining that the Equality Act didn’t get sufficiently stuck into religious groups for behaving like, er, religious groups, judging and discriminating according to their doctrine.
What none of these critics seems to have grasped is that equality was never a state-imposed objective, an ideal to be forcibly grafted on to a recalcitrant population. Quite the opposite, in fact: equality as an aspiration arose from the depths of society. It was an articulation born of social struggle from the French to the Russian Revolutions, from the English Civil War to the Suffragettes. That this elite jargon of equality is now little more than a weapon to be wielded against people’s freedom – to discriminate, to judge others, to associate with whom one chooses – shows just how wedded to the New Labour past the Lib-Cons are, no matter how much they might deny this fact.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.