The Fair Employment and Treatment Order (FETO) - Northern Ireland

31 March 2006

The text that follows was produced for the ERRC, the European Roma Information Office (ERIO), and the International Helsinki Federation for Human rights (IHF) as part of an ongoing project supported by the European Commission’s Community Action Program to Combat Discrimination involving, among other things, research into policy relevant to Roma in the field of education and employment. Discussed below is the relevance of the Northern Ireland Fair Employment and Treatment Order (FETO) – a measure introduced to combat the systemic exclusion of Catholics in Northern Ireland – as a possible model for policy on Roma in Central and Eastern Europe.

There are recognisable similarities between the situation in Northern Ireland prior to the introduction of Fair Employment and Treatment Order (FETO) and the current situation for Roma in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Similarities are discussed, and FETO is highlighted as a possible model for the CEE countries.

The socio-economic situation for Catholics in Northern Ireland prior to the introduction of FETO was in many ways similar to the situation for Roma in CEE today. An unofficial government memo reported that in Northern Ireland “on all the major social indicators, Catholics are worse off than Protestants. Catholics are more likely to experience long term unemployment. Catholics are significantly less likely than Protestants to hold professional, managerial, non-manual positions. More Catholics than Protestants leave school lacking any formal educational qualifications. Catholic households have a lower gross household income than Protestant households. Almost double the proportions of Catholic households are dependent on social security than Protestant households.”

The Protestant majority which included most employers also had prejudiced and stereotypical views about Catholics and their attitudes to work. For example, that they were lazy, did not want to work, preferred to live on welfare benefit, only wanted work in the informal economy, and that Catholics were thieves, unclean and not to be trusted. This views are resoundingly familiar and often held about Roma in CEE today.1

Although Northern Ireland had anti-discrimination legislation in place for 10 years, the legislation did not have a discernable effect on the problems of inequality in the labour market and religion-based job segregation did not alter significantly as a result. Labour market discrimination was keeping many Catholics out of work, and as a consequence they were at least twice as likely to be unemployed as Protestants and twice as many were long term unemployed; out of work for more than four years. The situation appeared unlikely to change unless some direct measures were put in place that would enforce the legislation and make employers an active part of the solution. This is arguably very similar to the situation in CEE today, where some form of direct action is needed to challenge the discriminatory practices and prejudiced views that are creating insurmountable barriers for Roma in the labour market.

Largely in response to international pressure, and a weighty internal campaign calling for equality mainstreaming, the 1989 Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act was introduced, imposing specific obligations on employers regarding equality in employment. Since the introduction of the Act, there has been a steady progression which has extended the employment monitoring to smaller firms and the policy appraisal and fair employment guidelines to the point where all private sector employers with more than 10 full-time employees, and all public sector employers, are required to register with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) and to carry out monitoring to guarantee the proportionality of their workforce. In 1989 the Fair Employment and Treatment (NI) Order (FETO) tightened the regulatory framework, and made it a statutory requirement to promote equality of opportunity.

Firms are required by the legislation to submit annual returns to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland showing the number of Catholics and Protestants and men and women in their workforce. If in the course of the monitoring process the firm discovers that they do not have a proportionate workforce, they must ensure that corrective steps are taken and they must draw up a programme of measures to achieve a balance in their workforce and a timetable to implement the measures. Over and above the annual monitoring, at least once every three years, firms must undertake a full review of the composition of their workforce (Article 55). If such a review indicates that Catholics or Protestants are not enjoying, or are unlikely to continue to enjoy, fair participation in employment within their enterprise, the employer may voluntarily undertake “affirmative action”, or may be directed to do so by the Equality Commission.

The positive measures permitted under the Fair Employment and Treatment Order include the following:

  • the encouragement of applications for employment or training from people in underrepresented groups;  
  • targeted training in a particular area or at a particular class of person;  
  • the amendment of redundancy procedures to help achieve fair participation; and  
  • the provision of training for non-employees of a particular religious belief, following approval by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

Ensuring participation of employers and enforcement of the workplace monitoring procedures has been the responsibility of first the Fair Employment Agency (now the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland). This has been very much a carrot and stick approach which has used moral responsibility as a good employer, as well as grant aid to encourage participation from employers but at the same time, the Commission has the authority to investigate and impose sanctions on firms that are suspected of non-compliance.

According to the Commission this approach has been extremely successful and it has seldom had to make use of their sanction capabilities.2 Another major factor that has guaranteed and motivated compliance from employers is the proactive approach that the Commission adopted to support new and inexperienced employers with the administration of the fair employment process. The financial assistance to set up the administrative procedures has also been a useful incentive to motivate co-operation from more resistant firms.

Those interviewed during the course of this research are in no doubt that FETO has been a significant driver of change, in terms of equality in employment in the Northern Ireland workforce. A recently published evaluation3 assessed the changes that have taken place, ten years on as a result of the fair employment legislation in the labour market and the availability of employment opportunities for Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The assessment confirmed:

  • a substantial improvement in the employment profile of Catholics;
  • a considerable increase in the numbers of people working in integrated workplaces, in contrast to continuing segregation in public housing;
  • education, rather than religion, now the main determinant of social mobility; 
  • employers indicating that strong legislation has helped change practices, and evidence suggesting that affirmative action agreements have helped to redress workplace under-representation.

FETO as a model is particularly relevant for CEE, not only because it has proven to be successful at counteracting serious and widespread discrimination in employment for a disadvantaged minority group. But also because the strict process of measuring and monitoring equality in employment has the potential to have a significant impact on the behaviour and attitudes of public and private sector employers, and further upon the attitudes of employees. The adoption of such a strong and regulated approach by the Governments in CEE would be a very clear and explicit message that employment discrimination against Roma will no longer be tolerated.

The ultimate purpose of Fair Employment legislation in CEE would be to create an atmosphere of equality consciousness in the workplace, so that all aspects of working conditions from recruitment through the course of employment to dismissal are monitored and audited and corrective measures are taken, whenever necessary. It would be impossible for every employer and every organisation in CEE to change the ethnic composition of their workforce overnight; it must however be a process that starts and is managed by clear goals and timetables. The burden for change must sit very clearly with employers, public and private, giving them the responsibility to ensure that they have a proportionate workforce, and a workplace free of discrimination. If these conditions are not met, then employers must take the necessary steps and apply adequate measures to change that situation.


  1. The similarities in the situation of Roma in the CEE labour market today and the Catholics in Northern Ireland in 1960s through into at least 1990s, in particular the prejudiced views of the majority population against the minorities, were recognised in a discussion with the Committee on the Administration of Justice in Belfast in September 2005.
  2. Under FETO if companies fail to meet statutory reporting and workforce monitoring requirements, or instructions to apply affirmative action sanctions can be placed on employers including exclusion from public authority contracts. These have been said to have a greater long term deterrent effect than the sanctions following litigation.
  3. Osborne, B. and Ian Shuttleworth; Fair Employment in Northern Ireland, A Generation On. Published by Blackstaff Press; Northern Ireland (2004).


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