Many people — and even politicians — would argue that a woman should not be discriminated against for being a mother, as happened to the woman fired by IKEA a few days ago.
While this is true, it fails to make clear everything that is at stake.
For 40 years, the legal principle of anti-discrimination, dictated by the E.U. and interpreted by the ECJ, has held repeatedly that women and men are to be considered equal, including in their capacity as parents.
In itself, this is a just principle, but it has been used to claim that national regulations guaranteeing additional protections for women beyond those strictly related to the biological facts of pregnancy and childbirth are discriminatory.
This interpretation claims that, as these protections presuppose a particular inclination on the part of women for being caregivers, they discriminate against women by assuming a stereotypical image of them.
As a result, in 2008 it was held to be discriminatory that female Italian public employees could retire earlier than men, just as, in 1988, the French norms that set an earlier retirement age for women in relation to the number of children were also condemned.
In the perspective of European law, which sets the framework for Italian law, no woman can say “I was discriminated against because I am a mother” if a man in the same situation as her would have been treated the same way.
If parenthood is considered by the employer to be an equally irrelevant condition in how they treat both male and female employees, there is no discrimination. An equal indifference to the living conditions of the workers is the ideal towards which the anti-discrimination protection tends.
Some years ago, a British woman, Sharon Coleman, was fired after she was forced to miss work due to her son’s disability. In that case, the child was taken to have been the victim of discrimination, and the mother was considered as a person “associated” with him.
In this framework, a woman who is fired because she is taking care of a disabled child (setting aside all possible caveats regarding the IKEA case, which would take into account the employment contract, Italian Law 104 and other national norms) can find justice only if she demonstrates that the employer, being an evil person and harboring hatred for the disabled, intended to discriminate against the child.
In the Coleman case, it was shown that the employer had directed nasty words at the disabled child. But now, against IKEA? It might be impossible to prove something of that sort, and one can only hope that the company, either well-meaning or fearing the cost to its public image, will rethink its decision.
So highly praised for its progressive struggle against gender stereotypes, the E.U.’s anti-discrimination jurisprudence has served to dismantle legislation protecting the rights of labor, and to reduce the range of circumstances that an employee may allege against an employer’s decision.
After the ban on night shift work for women was abolished as discriminatory, the conditions for nighttime work have become more burdensome for all workers.
The fact is that the protective regulations established for women in the 19th and 20th centuries were founded on a principle that doesn’t concern only women: that human life and society, meaning the relationships that bind us to each other and give us autonomy and freedom, have value, and must therefore be protected when facing the logic of profit, which tends to encroach on their domain.
Those protections were at the heart of the welfare state, which meant the defense of society against the intrusiveness of the market.
Women were the first ‘protected’ workers. By denouncing the regulations protecting women as discriminatory, the E.U. has demolished the legitimacy of all workplace protections, and has built instead its own ideal model: the person who lives in order to ensure the fulfillment of the requirements of the market.
As a result, we are not just speaking here of “women’s rights.”
If we were debating for sport, the reply would be ready at hand: those rights are stereotypes that harm women, or are incomprehensible privileges (after all, weren’t all the protections against unfair dismissal abolished in 2012?) that the world today can no longer afford.
Let us try instead to see in this issue about women’s rights, in what is happening to women nowadays, something that concerns us all, a fact of human life, although something often difficult to perceive as such.
In the end, this is not about guaranteeing protections for women to look after children. It is about making clear once again that production should not dominate every aspect of our existence and dictate our priorities.