The European Union Directive as a Framework for Trade Unions’ Involvement with Sexual Harassment Law and Policy

last updated September 20, 2005

As unions in different countries look for models and examples of trade unions’ role in combating sexual harassment in the workplace, one model to look toward is the European Union.  New members have been required to show compliance with sexual harassment standards, among other things.  These countries have adopted or will adopt legislation against sexual harassment.  Trade unions have an important role in enforcing the legislation.


In September 2002, the European Parliament and Council passed Directive 2002/73/EC amending Council Directive 76/207/EEC on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women as regards to access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions.  Our website explains the requirements of the directive, its harassment provisions, and compliance by new member states in adopting sexual harassment legislation.

The 2002 amendment to the 1976 Equal Treatment Directive expanded protections against sex discrimination in various ways.  This section discusses specifically the expanded role of trade unions and other organizations that the directive envisions.

The Directive permits freedom of association and prohibits discrimination within worker organizations.


The 2002 amendment clearly envisions that trade unions will play an important role in eradicating sexual harassment within member countries of the European Union.  To this end, the Directive specifically states that it “does not prejudice freedom of association, including the right to establish unions with others and to join unions to defend one’s interests.”  The Directive also specifically allows organizations to promote equality between women and men.  The Directive prohibits direct or indirect sex discrimination in regards to involvement and membership in an organization of workers or employers, including with regard to the organization’s benefits.  Therefore, while the Directive permits workers to organize in unions or other organizations and allows them to pursue specific goals to eradicate sex discrimination, it holds the worker organizations themselves to the same standards and prohibits sex discrimination within them.


Trade unions will play an important role in negotiating collective bargaining agreements pursuant to the Directive.


The 2002 amendment to the Directive specifically refers to the role of collective bargaining in effecting gender equality in Member States.  The amendment requires that Member States promote “[s]ocial dialogue between the social partners with a view to fostering equal treatment, including through the monitoring of workplace practices, collective agreements, codes of conduct, research or exchange of experiences and good practices.”  If employment contracts, collective agreements, or rules include provisions that violate the equal treatment principle, any provisions may be declared null and void. Thus, the Directive clearly anticipates that trade unions and collective agreements will be instrumental in implementing the provisions and intent of the 2002 amendment.


Trade unions will help educate workers on sexual harassment issues.


The 2002 amendment requires Member States to bring the provisions of the Directive to the attention of employees and “encourage employers to promote equal treatment for men and women in the workplace in a planned and systematic way.”  The Directive also notes that Member States also should encourage employers to regularly provide information on equal treatment between women and men.  Therefore, it will be important for trade unions to help develop strategies for dealing with sexual harassment as well as training mechanisms. 


The Directive specifically envisions that trade unions will be active in representing complainants with complaints and litigation.


The 2002 amendment provides that “Member States shall ensure that judicial and/or administrative procedures [are available], including where they deem it appropriate conciliation procedures” to all victims “even after the relationship in which the discrimination is alleged to have occurred has ended.”  The amendment also expects the trade unions or associations to support complainants with their complaints in judicial and /or administrative procedures.


The Directive requires the creation of national oversight bodies.


The 2002 amendment also takes the important step of requiring that Member States create national oversight bodies to promote, analyze, and support equal treatment without sex discrimination.  The oversight bodies cannot prejudice victims or worker organizations in pursuing their discrimination complaints.  The bodies must, according to Directive 2002/73/EC amending Council Directive 76/207/EEC, also conduct independent surveys regarding discrimination, as well as publish independent reports and make recommendations on discrimination. 


Our website contains discussions of legislation from the countries that have passed legislation complying with the 2002 Directive including the relevant legislation.   See the country pages site for updates on compliance.  For updates on the details of E.U. enlargement, see


Some resources for compliance:


Many employers, unions, organizations, and countries already have made great strides in developing anti-harassment measures and prosecuting violations. For a report on countries’ progress with compliance with the Directive in order to accede to the European Union, see Monitoring the EU Accession Process: Equal Opportunities for Women and Men (September 2003);  Additionally, there are many resources available for countries and unions.  For example, the CEE Gender project formed research teams to promote gender policy with the trade unions of Central and Eastern Europe.  As a result, CEE has a list of experts, according to Jasna A. Petrovi and Agnieszka Ghinararu, “Work Must Go On,” Women’s Network CEE, January 1, 2002, who are available to cooperate with women’s trade union groups. 


The Karat Coalition works to provide information to non-governmental organizations and individuals in Central and Eastern Europe about women in the labor market.  According to, it focuses on the link between the position of women in that region in the labor market and the enlargement process of the European Union.


Additionally, the non-profit organization EKS in the Czech Republic works with a wide range of women’s groups to improve the status of women in the workforce and in society.  EKS believes that “co-operation between women from local grassroots groups, activists from NGOs and national organisations as well as representatives from international bodies is the best way how to have the true perception about life of women across the European society.  EKS is hosting an international conference, stated on in November 2004 in the Czech Republic on “Women and the Labour Market – Combating Unemployment & Discrimination.”