Discrimination: a few clarifications

Discrimination is the unequal or unfair treatment of another person on the basis of their personal characteristics. Discrimination, bullying, hate messages and hate crimes against a person or group of persons because of specific personal characteristics are punishable by law.

The antidiscrimination legislation not only defines the various forms of discrimination, but also the personal characteristics concerned. We refer to these as ‘protected criteria’. 

Protected criteria

There are three laws in Belgium which together constitute the antidiscrimination legislation: the Gender Act, the Antiracism Act and the Antidiscrimination Act. Together, they identify several protected discrimination criteria. Discrimination on the grounds of any of these criteria or personal characteristics is forbidden and punishable under the law.

These are the discrimination criteria, broken down by the law covering them:

  • Gender Act: gender, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, motherhood, adoption, assisted reproduction, gender identity, gender expression, so-called 'sex change', sex characteristics, fatherhood, co-motherhood
  • Antiracism Act: nationality, national or ethnic origin, ‘race’, skin colour and cultural background (e.g. Jewish origin)
  • Antidiscrimination Act: disability, religious or ideological beliefs, sexual orientation, age, wealth, civil status, political beliefs, trade union beliefs, health status, physical or genetic characteristics, birth, social background or condition, and language

The Belgian regions and communities have also adopted equivalent regulations (a full summary of the legislation can be found on the page ‘Legislation and Recommendations’).

Unia is competent for all the discrimination criteria, except gender and language. A separate institute has been set up in Belgium for the criterion sex: the Institute for the Equality of Women and Men. There is no government body or agency in Belgium which has been assigned specific competence for the criterion language. 

Direct or indirect discrimination?

  • Direct discrimination occurs when you are badly treated for a quality which the law protects against. For example, you are rejected in a recruitment process because of your dark skin.
  • An action which appears innocent at first sight may also lead to discrimination. This we would describe as indirect discrimination. Example: if a café does not allow animals, it does not allow guide dogs for the blind.
  • At times it may be appropriate to distinguish between one person and another. For instance, if an agency is looking for an older model to promote anti-aging skin products, then this is justified. 

Instruction to discriminate

  • An instruction to discriminate (asking someone to discriminate) is also forbidden.
  • Example: a client asks a temping agency not to accept persons of foreign origin for a certain job

Discriminatory harassment

  • This refers to undesirable behaviour linked to one of the protected criteria which demeans a person’s dignity and creates a hostile, degrading and humiliating environment.
  • The law relating to psychosocial risks at work applies to the employment sector. In particular, it provides for the compensation of victims of violence or psychological or sexual harassment.
  • Example: a building site foreman makes racist remarks and jokes all day long against a worker of foreign origin.

Incitement to discrimination, hate or violence and hate crime

  • It is forbidden to publicly encourage people to discriminate or commit acts of hate or violence against individuals or groups based on a protected criterion.
  • Aggravating circumstances (tougher penalties) are also provided for when one of the motives behind an offence or crime is hate, contempt or hostility towards a person owing to their origin, sexual orientation, disability or any other protected criteria. This is what is referred to as a hate crime.
  • Example: a surfer writes on a blog that homosexuality is unnatural and incites others to beat up or exclude homosexuals.

Lack of reasonable accommodation

  • The law provides for the obligation to provide reasonable accommodations, in other words, “reasonable” measures allowing a person with a disability to do a certain job, take classes, go to a show, etc.
  • Example: a person is able to do a job because the hours have been adapted or because subsided adapted computer equipment has been provided.