The Equal Treatment Act prohibits direct and indirect discrimination on the basis of nationality (ethnicity), race or colour, religion or beliefs, disability and sexual orientation (subsections 2 (1) and (2) of the Equal Treatment Act). Pursuant to the Equal Treatment Act (subsection 2 (3)), other grounds for prohibited discrimination may be family-related duties, social status, representation of employee interests or membership in a workers’ union, level of language proficiency or duty to serve in defence forces. The so-called other grounds include skills that can be acquired (language proficiency), activities and responsibilities, and social status.
The prohibition of discrimination based on sex or gender identity is laid down in the Gender Equality Act.
A person’s nationality is an important part of their identity, linked to their origins (their parents’ ancestry) and cultural background. However, it’s up to each individual to decide which nationality they consider themselves to belong to. Ethnic origin is linked to a person’s cultural, religious, tribal and linguistic affiliations. For example, the Setos, the Roma and the Peipsiääre Old Believers can be seen as ethnic groups in Estonia.
A person must not be treated less favourably than another because of their nationality.
Direct discrimination based on nationality occurs when a person is treated less favourably than another person in a similar situation because of their nationality. For example, a Russian person is overlooked during recruitment. A higher level of proficiency in Estonian is required for employment than required by the nature of the job, or a level of language proficiency equivalent to that of a native speaker is required for which no language certificate can be obtained in Estonia. Russian people are paid lower wages than Estonians in the working environment.
The prohibition of discrimination based on nationality does not also mean prohibition of discrimination based on citizenship.
All people have equal dignity and the right to equal treatment, no matter how old or young they are. For example, older people must not be excluded from social and work life just because they are old. Who is considered old and who is considered young depends on society and culture, but also on the age of the person making the assessment. However, there are strong prejudices against the old and the young, which are related to the behaviour and work that is considered appropriate or inappropriate for a certain age.
Prejudice can lead to discrimination based on age and exclusion. For example, there is a negative stereotype that older people are not innovative or capable of learning, and therefore older people are not hired or promoted. However, such a generalisation may not be true for a lot older people. Even if it’s likely that a person is ill more often or less resilient at a certain age, the specific person and not their age must always be considered upon recruitment. Young people, on the other hand, are often perceived as less loyal or stable. Discrimination based on age can occur out of ignorance, but prejudice and negative stereotypes are often also used to justify discriminatory behaviour.
Direct discrimination based on age occurs when a person is treated less favourably than another person in a similar situation because of their age. For example, a 50-year-old employee is not promoted or trained because he or she is not considered promising, or a younger person is hired for the position from outside on the grounds that “the company needs new blood”.
The understanding of what a disability is and who a disabled person is have varied over time. Today, the prevailing approach is that disability is not a health problem of an individual person, but that disability and the perception of disability depend just as much on the environment surrounding the person. Public transport, buildings and their furnishings can help disabled people cope independently or, on the contrary, they can be a major obstacle in everyday life and create a gap between the opportunities of disabled people and those of others.
This is why Estonian law also imposes an obligation on the state to create opportunities for disabled people to participate in society as independently as possible. Equal treatment of people with disabilities means taking steps to create equal opportunities.
Different definitions of disability are used in Estonia. Pursuant to the Social Benefits for Disabled Persons Act (subsection 2 (1)), disability is the loss of or an abnormality in an anatomical, physiological or mental structure or function of a person which in conjunction with different relational and environmental restrictions prevents participation in social life on equal bases with others.
The Equal Treatment Act states that disability is the loss of or an abnormality in an anatomical, physiological or mental structure or function of a person which has a significant and long-term impeding effect on the performance of everyday activities.
A disabled person has the right to equal treatment regardless of whether or not they have been diagnosed as disabled. A person who cares for a disabled child or another family member must also not be treated unequally.
Nobody must be treated less favourably, i.e. discriminated against, because they have a disability. An example of direct discrimination based on disability is when an employer excludes a disabled applicant from the selection after a job interview. A hearing impaired employee cannot take part in training because there is no sign-language interpretation. An employer refuses to employ the parent of a disabled child. A child in a wheelchair is not admitted to a mainstream school. A waiter refuses to read the menu to a blind person. A man in a wheelchair requests a gun permit, but the doctor says it’s not “for someone like him”. The bus shelter is so small that wheelchairs can’t fit under it, etc.
Estonia has also ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which aims to guarantee all disabled people their human rights and fundamental freedoms and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.
People must not be discriminated against on the basis of their skin colour or ethnic origin. Instead of race, it’s more appropriate to talk about skin colour, because the modern understanding is that there is only one race – the human race. Theories about different races and their genetic differences, which mainly date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are no longer considered scientifically valid today. Therefore, instead of racial discrimination, it’s more appropriate to talk about discrimination based on skin colour.
Discrimination based on skin colour can be caused by prejudice against people of a different skin colour, or by conscious or unconscious racism. Racism is based on a mindset that considers some groups of people superior to others. Historically, it has been associated with colonial rule and slavery, justifying a situation where some people had more rights in society while others had fewer. Contemporary racism is based on a fear of others, which results in hostile attitudes towards people from other countries or people with a different cultural background. The attitudes that some people are less valuable because their skin colour is different can, in more serious cases, lead to hate speech and even hate crimes. According to Estonian law, no one has the right to express themselves in an offensive manner or incite hatred, racism and label people based on their ethnic origin or skin colour.
Direct discrimination based on skin colour occurs when a person is treated less favourably than another in a similar situation because of their skin colour. For example, a person is not hired after a job interview because they are black. A landlord refuses to rent an apartment to a student from China. A black child is being bullied at school, but the school authorities do not take the issue seriously. A man with darker skin colour is not allowed into a nightclub, etc.
Sexual identity is understood as the capacity of each person to become emotionally attached to and sexually attracted to another person and to form relationships. Sexual identity is also a person’s understanding of themselves as a sexual being – who they are and how they want to be seen by others.
Sexual orientation is a legal concept that is one of the grounds for discrimination in the Equal Treatment Act, based on which a person may not be treated less favourably. The Equal Treatment Act does not define this term, but it refers to the homo-, bi- or heterosexuality of a person, i.e. the person with whom a person prefers to establish close relationships.
Throughout history and in many societies, gay and bisexual people have experienced exclusion, persecution, discrimination and restriction of their rights. Even today, unequal treatment of and violence against lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people has not disappeared from society. Oftentimes, the negative attitude is rooted in homophobia, which includes negative feelings and attitudes, sometimes also hatred, towards homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Direct discrimination based on sexual orientation is when a person is treated less favourably than others because of their sexual orientation. For example, a gay or lesbian person is paid less than a heterosexual person for equivalent work. An employer only pays family allowances or provides other family or child benefits on their own initiative to heterosexual employees. A person is not hired if they turn out to be gay or lesbian, or if the employer thinks they are gay or lesbian, etc.
Religion and beliefs
Everyone has the right to freedom of religion and the right to remain true to their opinions and beliefs. For some ethnic groups, religion can play a crucial role in people’s identity. However, there are also widespread prejudices about different religions. For example, a person with clear religious beliefs may be perceived as wanting to spread their religion and impose it on others, which can lead to exclusion and discrimination against people of faith. But people also have beliefs other than religion, such as political beliefs or a broader worldview. Leaving aside political positions, the fact that a person belongs to a political party must not give them any advantages nor be an obstacle in finding work or social activities.
Direct discrimination based on religion or beliefs is when a person is treated less favourably than others because of their religion or beliefs. For example, if a nursery school teacher is dismissed and restriction on the teacher’s duties arising from religious beliefs (cannot celebrate children’s birthdays) is the main reason of dismissal. However, this restriction does not make it impossible to do their job. When a person is not hired because of their religion or religious beliefs in general.
If you feel that you’ve been treated unequally, please contact the Equality Commissioner by e-mail at email@example.com or telephone +372 626 9059. The anonymity of the person is guaranteed when contacting the Commissioner.