UNIA: ‘For equality, against discrimination’

equality

Els Keytsman is Director of UNIA, a public and independent human rights institution dedicated to promoting equality and fighting against discrimination. In this interview, she explains how UNIA operates and what difference they are making.

What exactly is UNIA and what does it do?

Keytsman: ‘While UNIA may be an independent equality body, we frequently work together with various ministers to achieve our goals. For example, when it comes to issues surrounding equality and discrimination within the labour market, we cooperate with the Minister for Employment. This is on both a Flemish and federal level. As an inter-federal institution, we are active in Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels and the German-speaking community, accountable to no fewer than six parliaments. This is a great benefit, particularly since Belgium is a country of great complexity. What we learn on one side of the language border, we can apply on the other. For example, we took our employees from Liège and Namur to the city of Ghent, as it has been running practical trials on the private rental market to measure and tackle discrimination since 2015. Following this visit, a working group was set up in 2020 that today unites Liege, Namur, Verviers, Charleroi and Mons. This allows us to work together on promoting equality and tackling discrimination.’

How does this work in practise?

Keytsman: ‘By assisting all those who face discrimination and supporting organisations that want to promote greater diversity. People can come to us if they have witnessed or are victims of discrimination. This can be reported via a web form, or simply by calling us and making an appointment. The first thing we do is listen. The fact that people are finally being heard is already a relief in itself.’

What fields are you active in?

Keytsman: ‘We are not competent in certain areas, such as gender and inequality discrimination. In such cases, people should refer to the ‘Instituut voor de gelijkheid van mannen en vrouwen’ (Institute for Gender Equality). When we are competent, we listen and offer advice. Usually, it is a question of unequal power relations. Think of someone facing their employer, or wanting to rent a flat, faced with a landlord or real estate agent. These are all lopsided relationships. However, if we are successful in providing assistance to the victim, these relationships can often be corrected. Thus, after proving that there is indeed a case of discrimination, we attempt to rectify the situation. This can take the form of an apology from the perpetrator towards the victim, or in some cases compensation.’

Is this allowing you to make a significant difference?

Keytsman: ‘By using this approach, we are managing to achieve settlements in negotiations in four to five hundred cases per year, without recourse to litigation. We are immensely proud of these figures, as they show we are able to help so a great number of people without going through the courts. In exceptional cases where the other party is not open to negotiation, or if these simply come to nothing, we will go to court. In such instances, we provide assistance to the victim. To date, we have won 80% of all court cases. A recent, as yet unpublished study showed that victims who go to court alone win on only one out of three occasions, whereas victims who go to court with the support of an equality body win two out of three cases. This figure highlights our importance. All court rulings are published on our website for all to see.’

Are we doing enough to achieve equality in our society?

Keytsman: ‘We have already made great strides thanks to anti-discrimination and anti-racism legislation, however there is of course still much work to be done. Our socio-economic monitoring has shown that, while a diploma can help in finding employment, there is a disparity in how these are received based on an applicant’s ethnicity. Such diplomas have proven to be worth more to people of Belgian origin than those with a migrant background. While this situation has improved, to continue at this pace would mean taking another 60 years to be in a position to speak of equality within the labour market.’
‘The difficulty lies in proving instances of discrimination, which is not always easy. We see this problem within the rental market, for example. To that end, our website provides tools for those looking to prove whether they are being discriminated against or not, providing a step by step guide on collecting evidence. You know how the story goes. A property is up for rent, and you submit an application. To use your real, non-Belgian sounding name results in an instant rejection, whereas using a more Belgian sounding name is met with instant approval.’
‘The pandemic has exposed the level of inequality and lack of diversity within our society. All measures were built around the traditional family-orientated ideal of two breadwinners, with children, occupying a house with a garden. As a result, this made things difficult for single parents, who all of a sudden had to become teachers for their children while also working from home. Think also of families living in the city, without their own gardens, for whom to relax sitting on a park bench would result in a fine. We also received reports of two men walking hand-in-hand who, upon being told by the police to keep their distance, were met with an appalling response after informing them that they were, in fact, a couple. Our policymakers were working according to norms that have long since been rejected by contemporary society.’

The Pride Parade is coming up on 21 May. What does it stand for?

Keytsman: ‘Pride Parade is an event that celebrates the LGBTQIA+ community. The very fact that this event is even able to take place in our country is already quite a source of pride in itself. If you take the rest of Europe, let alone the rest of the world, the situation is not so positive. It is vital for people to be able to come out onto the streets, to be their true selves, all in complete safety. However, while our country does provide protection under proper legislation, there is still work to be done in practice. When it comes to the LGBTQIA+ community, while we do not receive as many complaints of discrimination, we do receive numerous complaints of violence. Instances of hate speech or hate crime targeting individuals for being homosexual, for example, is still all too common. As such, we are working with police forces in the run-up to the parade on raising awareness and preventing violent incidents from spoiling the day.’

How can readers engage in promoting cultural diversity and equality in their everyday lives?

Keytsman: ‘Discrimination entails being reduced to one aspect of your personality, be it age, appearance, skin colour, disability or faith, and being judged solely on the basis of this one aspect. For your part, you can help by simply being open-minded and by not discriminating against others. Be aware of unconscious biases. Take action if you find yourself in a discriminatory situation, or if you are witness to someone being discriminated against on social media. Report the post, and do not remain a silent bystander.’

What can companies do to help?

Keytsman: ‘We provide an online learning tool for companies called the ‘eDiv module’. There, companies can learn how to implement diversification policies, which often provide gateways towards improved cooperation between employers and their employees. We also provide intensive courses for companies wanting to implement their own diversity policies. This is another way in which we are able to make a real impact, bringing us one step closer to creating an equal and more diverse society.’

What does the future look like?

Keytsman: ‘Thanks to the younger generation, I am hopeful. I think of my son, for whom super-diversity is an everyday norm. He is often outraged if he sees someone being treated differently due to the colour of their skin or their religion. His level of disapproval is such that he is genuinely unable to comprehend people harbouring such attitudes. It would never even dawn on him to discriminate against others. I see this and I think ‘everything is going to be ok’. The younger generation no longer sees inequality as being acceptable, which promises for a future of both equality and diversity.’

International Guide Dog Day

guide dog

A guide dog makes life easier and safer for someone with a visual impairment. The Belgian Centre for Guide Dogs NFPO  (BCG) trains guide dogs and makes them available free of charge to anyone who needs them.

The BGC has been training guide dogs for the blind since 1990. Why? Because they change the life of a person with a visual impairment in a positive way. Guide dogs increase the mobility of visually impaired people. People who are blind or visually impaired can once again be active members of our society – safely, comfortably, and efficiently. All this is possible thanks to a guide dog that helps people to shop independently, go to work, or take part in social and cultural activities. 

The Belgian Centre for Guide Dogs is a professional training centre for guide dogs for the blind. They buy and breed dogs and train them to be guide dogs. They also train people with a visual impairment how to interact with their new life buddy. Finally, they provide lasting aftercare for both dog and owner.

A guide dog – why?

The help given by a guide dog brings lots of advantages. Rubbish bags on the pavement or a fallen bicycle blocking the path make for a challenging obstacle course for visually impaired people. A guide dog indicates where the kerbs begin and leads his owner on command to a bus stop, stairs, a zebra crossing or a free seat. 

Guide dogs in training are allowed to be taken anywhere: from the supermarket to the cinema. Did you know that the law even states they cannot be refused? The cute dog also encourages a friendly chat, adding to the social contact with others. But the biggest advantage, of course, is that you are never alone: you’ve got a buddy for life!

From puppy to guide dog

When a dog becomes a fully-fledged guide dog, he has come a long way already. The entire programme takes an average of two years, including six to eight months of training at the BCG. Not every dog is suitable for this training. The animals must be medically fit and have the right temperament. If these two conditions are met, the real work starts: practise, practise, practise!

Behaviours are partly genetically determined, and that is why the BCG breeds a number of their dogs. However, dogs are also bought if they meet strict criteria. The breeds we mainly work with are Labradors and Golden Retrievers. The puppies stay with their mother for the first eight weeks, where they can get used to the different situations and stimuli. They learn how to deal with people, sounds, and even go on their first car ride. The puppies are also medically tested for various disorders.

Off to school

After the first eight weeks, the puppies move to a foster family, where they learn all the basic commands. Would you like to become a foster family? All the information you need is available on the BCG website. 

After about sixteen months, the dog starts his training in the BCG training centre and then moves on to extensive schooling. During training, the dogs learn to become one with their instructor when wearing their harness. This is how they learn to be an extension of their future owner. They also learn to avoid obstacles and make sure their owner does not bump into anything.

The most difficult part is teaching the dog to refuse a command. They have to do this in dangerous situations, such as crossing the road when a car is approaching. In this case, the guide dog must refuse the command to cross the road. He does this by waiting or standing in front of the person, so that the owner knows it is not safe to cross.

A match made in heaven

The BCG pairs dogs and owners based on the dog’s character. They look for the best owner for the dog, not the other way around. Some dogs love working for hours on end, while others tire sooner. Once the centre feels the perfect match has been found, the guide dog will stay with that person for two weeks. The blind or visually impaired person goes through training with his matched dog, to improve their partnership. 

Slowly but surely, the bond of trust between the two grows. After two weeks of getting used to one another, there is intensive training at the new owner’s home. This is where they learn the guide dog owner’s regular routes, and that’s when their life together starts. 

Into the future

The dog’s trainer visits the duo every year to see if the partnership is still the best it can be. It may be that refresher training is needed, because of a house move or other major change in the owner’s life.

This aftercare can also be used to decide what the dog’s retirement will look like. The instructor makes this decision during his home visits. As soon as the guiding is no longer hassle-free or safe, a decision is made. Guide dogs work for eight years on average. In consultation with the guide dog owner, the BCG will find a place where the dog can enjoy his well-earned retirement. If desired, the guide dog owner can opt to have a new guide dog.

Cancer at work: how to support your colleague?

cancer

The Union for International Cancer Co trol (UICC) declared 4 February World Cancer Day. On that day, in the year 2000, the first World Summit against Cancer was held in Paris. This makes it the day par excellence for people to commemorate cancer: its many varieties and above all its patients.

To bring extra attention to this day, Smart Media Agency spoke with emino. Emino is a specialised centre for educational advice and meditation that offers Rentree guidance to people diagnosed with cancer. Their coaches offer support in rehabilitating the patient into the labour market or in finding a new, fitting position. The employer and their network are actively involved in this process with the aim of optimising rehabilitation for all stakeholders.

The lives of people who were diagnosed with cancer change overnight. Many of these people are working adults. As the risk of cancer increases with age and our working lives are growing longer, there is a high probability that cancer will occur during someone’s career. The majority (60-80%) of cancer survivors can and want to get back to work. Working with or after cancer, however, is not a given. In other words, work resumption is a very important issue both to (ex)patients and employers.

It is vital for a cancer survivor to be well informed about their rights and responsibilities. And as a company, it is of crucial importance to be aware and get informed about the rights and needs of the colleague involved.

To Smart Media Agency, our colleagues, the people who are with us every day, are our family. We share both positive and difficult times with each other and want to support each other. This support is unconditional but we always want to learn more about how to best express that support. For example, we attended an information session about ‘Cancer at work’ on 11 February 2022. Seeds of Happiness and emino organised this session to raise awareness around World Cancer Day. We were able to learn about the disease and how to support colleagues and loved ones during their period with and after cancer.

During this session, we had the pleasure of meeting Monique van Opstal, an emino employee. She shared her own experience of this trying period with us. To create more awareness, help others in their battle against cancer and emphasise the importance of cancer research, Monique likes to share her story and supports various organisations committed to this cause. This remarkable story helped us put unmeasurable things into perspective.

For example, Monique explained that when you have cancer, nights are the worst part of the day: “You’re all alone with your thoughts while dealing with indescribable pain”. She also shared the difficulties she had experienced at work. For example, her employer at the time decided that she would have to be replaced for the entire duration of her treatment in the same week of her diagnosis. Though they informed her carefully and she knew rationally that this was the only correct way to communicate at that moment in time, it was still a huge mental blow. Her job security was gone. This put the first dent into her confidence level.

During her work rehabilitation process and recovery from the disease, Monique was coached by a Rentree specialist who helped her get back on her feet. The most important thing Monique taught us was how to approach and support a colleague or loved one with a cancer diagnosis more realistically. After all, it isn’t about us or our feelings towards the patient. It’s about them and how we can help. For example, Monique noticed that her loved ones would sometimes ignore her when they met. In hindsight, it turns out they simply didn’t know what to say or do. And according to Monique, saying nothing is the worst thing you can do. “If you don’t really know what to say, how to phrase it or you don’t know whether or not you can ask something, just say so. Honesty is appreciated and it will kick-off a conversation automatically.”

Our CEO, Christian Nikuna Pemba, asked Monique for a concluding message she would like to share with young people at the end of the information session. Her answer was simple yet so powerful: “Live your life to the fullest!”

“Everyone has baggage. Mine is different from yours but that doesn’t make it any easier or more difficult. What remains important for us all, is to maintain a sense of perspective. You can’t keep carrying the burden in your head, you can’t keep digging. Of course, it’s fine and even natural to have moments when you do, but afterwards you need to make sure to give your life purpose again and live it to the fullest!” – Monique van Opstal

We would like to thank emino for this opportunity and especially Monique, for inspiring us with her story. As Seeds of Happiness, we consider it our duty to give back to the community as well as to our partners. That is why we are happy to share the expertise of emino via our platform.

One of our journalists, Nieke, also interviewed emino and one of their partners in the context of Taalboost. Veerle Renier, job coach with emino, and Richard Garot, team leader with work and educational company KonnecteD, talked about communicating with a language barrier at work.  Read this article on Fokus Online and learn all about this (sometimes stubborn) barrier.

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Fedasil: ‘Asylum seekers are people like you and me’

Fedasil

Fedasil is the Belgian government organisation responsible for receiving asylum seekers. The organisation offers asylum seekers ‘BBBG’, or bed, bath, bread, and guidance. When they arrive at the registration centre ‘Het Klein Kasteeltje’, they apply for asylum at the Immigration Office. When someone is entitled to asylum, Fedasil assigns them a reception facility. But how does this work in practice? We asked the organisation itself.

The importance of good communication

1. How does communication work with all the different nationalities in the reception centres? 

‘Our staff speak several languages. Flyers, brochures, and posters are always available in different languages. And our website for asylum seekers, “Fedasilinfo”, provides answers to the most common questions asked by asylum seekers. Interpreters are used when needed.’

2. Given the huge diversity, how do you deal with the different cultures and taboos?

Fedasil: ‘We’re a neutral organisation. For us, this means that you can be yourself as long as you don’t harm others. Cultural matters are taken into account, such as Ramadan or individual prayer. All beliefs and orientations are welcome here. There is a set of regulations that everyone must sign and comply with. There are rules that everyone must keep in mind. To a certain extent, reception centres reflect the community. Everyone has to live together and have respect for certain rules and for each other.’

How the centre works

1. How do people find you and what is the process once they enter your centre? 

Fedasil: ‘In “Het Klein Kasteeltje”, they first go to the Immigration Office to submit their asylum application. Fingerprints are taken and their identity is checked. Fedasil then evaluates whether they are entitled to asylum. If they are, they are assigned to a reception centre. After a few months of waiting, the asylum seeker is invited to an interview at the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons. This office ultimately decides the outcome based on the Geneva Convention. If the person has a legitimate reason to flee their country, they are granted refugee status. During the procedure, Fedasil provides shelter and guidance to these people.’

2. How would you describe an ordinary day in a reception centre? 

Fedasil: ‘Asylum seekers are people like you and me. The only difference is that they are waiting for a life-changing decision. People in reception centres have to wait. Wait for their asylum application to be processed and decided. We try to offer them a meaningful way of spending their time and make sure they can live “as normal a life as possible” in the centres. The children must go to school, some asylum seekers go to work, take courses, or go on an outing. There is also volunteer work or language training, which is very popular. Our volunteers are often retired teachers who give courses.’

Social assistance for asylum seekers

1. What is your biggest challenge faced by a reception centre?

Fedasil: ‘At the moment, we have a reception crisis, which means that we are urgently in need of reception facilities. People have to wait a long time for the decision on their asylum application, so they have to stay in reception centres much longer than usual. This also means there are fewer places available for new asylum seekers. Many reception centres could not be used due to the floods in Wallonia. Sometimes residential containers are set up as a temporary solution to increase the available spaces.’

2. What can external people and companies do to help?

Fedasil: ‘People can make donations, such as clothing or toys for the children. You can also volunteer to help, such as giving courses or doing crafts with the children. You can become a buddy, which is a kind of mentor system. This involves building a special bond with a resident by going for walks or playing board games together. This is how you provide psychological support and help that person integrate into society. There are many ways to help and we’re grateful for every little bit you can give.’

Word of thanks

Finally, Fedasil would like to thank everyone for the many donations and support it received. Fedasil urges you not to hesitate and send a mail if you would like to become a volunteer or a buddy for someone staying in a reception centre in your neighbourhood. It could change someone’s world for the better.