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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 March, 2004, 17:57 GMT
Q&A: New anti-discrimination laws
Druids could be protected under the regulations

The biggest shake-up in workplace anti-discrimination laws for 25 years came into force at the beginning of December. What does it mean for workers and employers?

Discrimination? What has it got to do with me?

The new rules will affect nearly every worker.

Since 1 December 2003, it has beenunlawful to discriminate against workers because of their sexual orientation, whether they are bisexual, lesbian, gay or heterosexual.

Religious organisations are exempted from these new rules.

Separate regulations to protect people from discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief have also been introduced.

People are already protected against discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, disability and gender reassignment.

These are European-inspired regulations, which apply across Great Britain [England, Scotland and Wales). Separate Regulations are being introduced in Northern Ireland.

So what does it actually mean for us here at the factory?

What do they outlaw?
Direct discrimination - treating people less favourably than others because of their sexuality, religion or belief
Indirect discrimination - applying a provision, criterion or practice which disadvantages people of a particular sexual orientation or religion or belief
Harassment - unwanted conduct that violates people's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment
Victimisation - treating people less favourably, for example because they have complained about unfair treatment.
The regulations should be a real boost for people who used to feel sidelined or bullied because of their sexuality.

The new rules protect people from harassment, discrimination or victimisation.

In practice workers could challenge their bosses if they feel they have been denied a job or promotion because of their sexual orientation.

They could also seek redress for unwelcome and hurtful comments about their sexuality.

This can also include comments made about a family member.

And what's this difference between religion and beliefs?

This is a potential minefield for employers, as religion and belief are very loosely defined.

The regulations not only cover mainstream religions but other beliefs such as Druidism and even atheism.

However, being a supporter of a particular political party because of strongly held political views will not be covered.

But employers may be required to provide prayer rooms or allow employees to take time off for religious holidays or commitments.

How will workplaces have to change?

Experts are predicting wide-ranging changes to the whole "culture" of workplaces: from advertising jobs and interviewing procedures to the way people conduct themselves in the office.

Employers could find themselves challenged if they ask whether someone is married or about the number of children they have in an interview.

Even asking questions about someone's social life could be construed as intrusive.

For example, an advert seeking a "husband and wife team" could now be legally challenged, as it may discriminate against same sex partners.

In the workplace some staff will have to rein-in offensive day-to-day office banter.

Name calling or teasing could be classed as harassment.

And it is not only employers who could find themselves liable.

Individuals who harass or victimise could also be liable and be ordered to pay compensation.

I'm in a same-sex relationship. Does this mean I will gain the same pension rights as a married couple?

No, it does not.

A pension scheme which currently allows only survivor benefits to married couples can continue to do so.

However, a number of unions are mounting a legal challenge against this rule, as they believe this amounts to indirect discrimination as gay people are not able to marry their partners.

Where can I find out more about the new rules?

There is lots of useful information on the Department of Trade and Industry website (see link on right).

Acas also has detailed guidance on the regulations (see link on right). It also has a telephone helpline (tel: 08457 47 47 47, textphone: 08456 06 16 00) which provides information and advice across a wide range of employment issues.

And it also runs an advice line for employers - Equality Direct: tel: 0845 600 3444, textphone 08456 06 16 00.

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