DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
I THINK a lot about our obligation to speak out on matters that impact our society, and how we hold ourselves to account. Public institutions can be our best defence against unfairness, but they have to be held to that potential and to our highest ideals. As my father would often say, “Who will guard the guard?”
The Equal Opportunity Act strengthens our right and ability to guard those highest ideals and hold us all to them. Its value and necessity are so apparent at this time as a progressive piece of legislation that should be protected and can be expanded toward an inclusive vision of equality.
It’s important that we uphold the ideals of the act in guiding decisions of employers, schools, landlords, state boards, medical-care providers and others, and relationships among the public and even among public officials.
The Equal Opportunity Act is empowered through two institutions: the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) and the Equal Opportunity Tribunal (EOT). Despite popular confusion, the two institutions are independent and distinct, having completely different leadership, boards, mandates, staff, budgets, space and purposes.
The tribunal does not provide the broader functions of the EOC, and the two institutions do not function as one. As one example, the EOC and EOT currently hold opposing positions with relation to sexual harassment, with the EOC outlining that it constitutes a form of discrimination on the basis of sex, because the sex of the person is the first and key reason why she or he is harassed by another person (regardless of her or his own sexual orientation).
The EOT disagreed, and the case is currently before the Court of Appeal. It is possible at times for the EOC and the EOT to disagree on interpretation of the act and other viewpoints. Fortunately, the justice system exists to provide checks and balances so that the spirit of the legislation is implemented to promote equality for all.
Guided by the act, the Equal Opportunity Commission represents a belief in freedom from discrimination, through uncompromised and strategic advocacy, civil society solidarity and partnership, public education, and investigation of claims of discrimination toward agreed resolution and redress. It is committed to expanding human rights. It is a people’s institution.
If you are experiencing discrimination based on inherent characteristics that are covered by the act (such as race, ethnicity, disability, marital status, origin including geographic origin and religion), the EOC will assess and establish your case, and can offer conciliation, without charge.
If you are not protected as yet under the act, and should be, the institution fearlessly advocates for inclusion, and supports your community’s organising, leadership and vision for a life without inequality or unfair exclusion.
The Equal Opportunity Tribunal is a court of law and its judge, who also serves as its chairman, is a High Court judge. It determines complaints and, where appropriate, penalises offenders for discrimination, victimisation or offensive conduct in the way of a civil court. Through this judicial function, it is also mandated to promote equal opportunities for people of unequal status.
The last weeks’ widespread public discussion about exclusion and discrimination provides much for us to recognise. The public wants institutions that show they care when it matters. It considers silence in the face of administrative injustice to be complicity, and its disappointment is vicious. We must be very clear where we stand, whether as individuals or an institution, when there is or even appears to be wrong. Public confidence is hard won and easily lost. We must guard ourselves.
The EOC offers much-needed reassurance because of its commitment to the act above all else, particularly when public trust in representatives, leaders and decision-makers feels strained and stretched thin. As a mother and citizen, I’d expect nothing less from such a public institution; a presence that steadies a sense of hope and a voice that continues to be heard.
The EOC’s work and mandate continues, buoyed by a population whose reaction reminds us how much it values fairness, and fearless commitment to human rights. The EOC denounces discrimination, but also calls for protection to LBGT people and on the basis of age and health status, thus broadening our human rights landscape and leading on the basis of the act’s vision.
Meanwhile, as a defender of human rights and with responsibility to a growing generation, I see the current lessons, and what it takes to gain and lose respect and trust from those looking to us from across the nation.
Diary of a mothering worker