On the occasion of launching its new website, Equinet discussed with Mr. Jozef de Witte, Chair of the Equinet Board and Director of the Belgian Interfederal Centre for Equal
Opportunities, about the establishment, challenges and opportunities of Equinet.
The Belgian Centre, one of the founding members of Equinet, is a federal public service, independent in the fulfillment of its mission, with around 100 employees and an operating budget of almost 9 million Euros. When it was initially founded in 1993, support to victims of racial discrimination was the central task of the Centre. Through consecutive Acts of Parliament, the Centre’s mandate was extended: it also became competent for issues related to migration, human trafficking, poverty and non-racial discrimination, and denial of the Holocaust.
As of July 2012, the Centre has been appointed as the independent mechanism to fulfil the Belgian obligations of Article 33.2 of the UN-Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Equinet: Mr. De Witte, can you tell us a bit about the history of the Belgian Centre and its involvement in Equinet as a founding national equality body (NEB)?
Jozef De Witte (JDW): The Centre was founded in 1993 (Law of 15/02/1993), so we will actually celebrate our 20th anniversary in a few months. In 2003 new legislation was introduced that expanded our mandate to cover most other grounds apart from race. It is at that moment that Dirk De Meirleir, who used to work here, became the contact person for Equinet together with some other colleagues we knew, especially from the Dutch NEB (such as Chila Van der Bas, whom I think can be called the “mother” of Equinet). This shows that from the very beginning the Belgian Centre was quite eager to exchange practices among the various existing NEBs from the EU.
Equinet: There had not been such an initiative before, it was the first attempt to try and bring more organisations together, right?
JDW: Absolutely. In a certain way we had just started to discover each other, to realize that across the border there is also an equality body. That situation was due to the EU Racial Equality Directive (2000/43/EC) as well, since it required Member States to establish NEBs competent on the race ground. I remember very well that there were quite a few exchanges and we contributed our bit financially to organise some meetings, since back then there was no EU funding through the PROGRESS programme. We knew that it was a good investment since we were eager to work together and this has not changed. Actually, as Equinet members, we should all consider that what we do for Equinet is an investment, and the “return on investment” is definitely there.
So at the beginning it was Dirk who started setting up the structure for Equinet, making it an AISBL (non-profit organisation) under Belgian law, and checked regularly with me to see who could help us and how best to proceed. Of course during this setting-up process the discussion came up about where we would have the Secretariat. We said that we would be happy to welcome the Secretariat here in our building because it would be a real honour and in our own interest to have Equinet so close. It would benefit Equinet as well, not only in terms of being close to the actual work of one of its members, but also logistics-wise (not worrying about meeting rooms, supplies, etc.). As for the outside world, it is good that any visitor to our NEB can also visit Equinet and vice-versa.
Equinet: Apart from the challenge of setting it up, what were the other challenges facing Equinet at the beginning, and how did they change?
JDW: Well, at the beginning there was also the challenge of getting funding for Equinet from the European Commission (EC), since this was obviously not a given, and we were happy that we were able to convince the EC of the necessity of having a network of NEBs. We had a very constructive and meaningful dialogue with the EC, showing that the network could be an important partner by contributing to the European agenda for more equality and by answering the need for more training and more exchange of information between NEBs. Equinet could become a single source of information on what and how NEBs are doing, and it would streamline the communication with other institutional or non-governmental actors.
But other challenges remain. In particular, it is about making sure that Equinet remains a network of members, by members, for members. Its main role and priority is to support the members. The reason why this can sometimes be a challenge is that Equinet is actually so respected and doing so well that there is a lot of demand to engage in many international initiatives, but the emphasis must be on encouraging members to engage with each other and to get involved in the work of the working groups, as well as in producing publications and other outputs (the Secretariat itself provides only a supporting role in this). Representing the network is obviously an important responsibility, but you can fill all your time with that and there needs to be a good balance between “internal” and “external” responsibilities.
Equinet: Speaking of getting involved in activities, what do you consider to be the main Equinet activity or initiative that your organisation benefits from?
JDW: This is a difficult question. We have new staff members all the time, and I remember very well the training we had on hate speech in Vienna last year because we decided to pay the expenses for 2-3 newer staff members to give them the opportunity to attend the training. They were of course very happy and relished the engagement with colleagues from other NEBs across Europe. So the trainings are very important. The legal seminar is also very important, just like the WGs. For example, there is a strong engagement in the WG Communications on our part because we are eager to engage with other NEBs on how to tackle strategic communication issues.
The point is that it is difficult to say which activity is more important than the other. And this is a good thing. There is diversity in Equinet’s activities because they address the very different mandates of its members. Equinet is not there to organise meetings only for the international officers of NEBs, it seeks to address the concerns and interests of different categories of employees working in NEBs (lawyers, communication managers, management, etc.).
Equinet: Let’s talk now more about the Centre and your work. Could you give us an example of a recent case or difficulty encountered by the Centre that has particularly fascinated and challenged you?
JDW: I would have to mention the famous HEMA case: a woman worked for several months as a temporary worker in a supermarket wearing a headscarf with the logo of the company, but due to some criticisms from customers, she was fired. The argument of the employer was that “we are neutral; we know that under Belgian and European law faith-based organisations have an exemption from normal anti-discrimination rules”. So they basically considered being neutral as a kind of faith, so they could refuse a headscarf because it does not respect their belief in “neutrality”. But is neutrality a faith? The same company does not consider headscarves a problem in the Netherlands, but in Belgium it did.
This case touches upon something happening in this society, but I think in others as well: what is the place of religion and belief in society? The interesting thing is that people fully agree there should be a separation between church and state, but they miss the point that public life is not the state. The street is not the state, it is a public space, and what is the place of religion in public space? It is sometimes strange that nobody is protesting against a catholic nun walking in her ancient clothes (if she still does), but when a Muslim woman does that everybody is panicking. There are plenty of churches in this nice city of Brussels, but if anybody wants to build a mosque then they say “no mosque here”. This behaviour is strange.
So because of this case we would like to have a broader discussion in the whole society about what is the place of religion and belief in public life. If people say religion and belief is only a matter of private life and saying that “you should not express your religion and belief in public life”, then they are not talking about freedom anymore. A freedom like this, restricted to your own house (like being gay only at home), is not a freedom.
We also hope to achieve more legal clarity because for an employer it is not clear to what extent they can or they cannot discriminate on the basis of religion, and we need to deal with this in the coming months.
Equinet: Can you tell us more about the level of tolerance for such a discussion in Belgian society?
JDW: It is very difficult to discuss because more and more people are saying they don’t want Muslims in this country and that they should go back to their country of origin. There is a close relationship with migration in this line of thinking, and Islam is seen as mostly an effect of migration. But in the HEMA case discussed above, the lady who was fired was Belgian from Belgian origin, and became a Muslim. But some people were actually saying that she should go back to Morocco, except that she has nothing to do with Morocco (she is in fact Flemish with as Flemish a name as you can get). This could be explained by the fact that we are in difficult times economically, and there is a reaction to look for an external enemy, and it’s always easier to pick on the ones who are easier to label as “outsiders”. In this frame of mind “outsiders” can be treated differently, they have a different religion, origin, it’s “easier to spot them”, etc.
Moreover, a recent study showed that one third of temporary labour agencies accepted to discriminate on the ground of race and origin even though they knew this is illegal. The message from some ministries was that “well, we rely on the self-regulation of the sector”. But isn’t this strange? You have a law, but it is not respected, and some authorities say that it is up to the companies to try and maybe correct themselves a little bit. But a law is a law, something needs to be done, you cannot leave this just at “self-regulation”. So it is very hard to have a meaningful debate about this problem.
Equinet: So you are not optimistic about the future?
JDW: No, no, I am an optimistic guy (laughing). But I am not sure for example if the proposals for the 2000 directives could be raised and accepted today by the European institutions. Nowadays in a certain way the idea of non-discrimination and human rights is seen as something that the Chinese should deal with, but not the Europeans. People think this is not an issue in Europe and it is worrying. Actually, people working in this area are almost in a defensive mode trying to guarantee that the current directives are implemented and respected. Not to mention the new horizontal Framework Directive Proposal which has been stuck in the Council for 4 years now…
Equinet: Speaking of being on the defensive, since you are the Centre’s director, how is it to be leading such an institution at the moment?
JDW: I will not hide, people say it must be a hard job, but I reply “no” because I like it. I like it first and foremost because in this role you know what you are working for, what you are fighting for, and it is not about earning money at the end of the month. You know there is an agenda for the whole society and you are playing a small role in that. There are also plenty of others to engage with at the national level like people working in state structures, employers, trade unions, and NGOs working on different topics. You can’t imagine how many people I meet in my job who are truly engaged and passionate about their work. and who are busy finding solutions to tackle discrimination. Ours is a unique position to be in, but to be honest it’s quite good not to be the only actor in this field. This allows me to think about strategic issues on how to improve cooperation with these other stakeholders and how to improve our own work.
Equinet: You probably also have a good team to rely on.
JDW: The team is crucial because people who come to work here believe in something. I have to say more often “do not work too hard” than “you need to work more”. Funnily enough, I have to push people to go and take holidays. I mean, it’s a fundamental right to have an annual leave and one should respect one’s own rights. This is also important because we are not a campaigning organisation, nor a political cabinet working under a 4-year cycle. We should understand as an NEB that we are not competing for the 100 metres sprint, but for the marathon. We should manage our energy to insure that we are still there tomorrow, not only as good professionals, but as an institution.
So it’s true that sometimes I ask my eager and resourceful colleagues when they will have time to do this or that project on top of their current work. But then they ask why did I become the chair of Equinet’s Executive Board, don’t I have anything to do? I tell them “I knew what to do on Saturday but not on Sundays and now that problem is solved” (laughing).
Equinet: Mr. De Witte, thank you very much for this interview.