Today in Paris, the French National Assembly will consider a proposal to make glottophobia grounds for prosecution for discrimination.
Glottophobia or linguistic discrimination is the act of discriminating against someone on the grounds of the way they speak – extent of vocabulary, mother tongue and, particularly in the case of the new legislation, accent.
The bill was drawn up by deputy Christophe Euzet on the basis of reported incidents, and has attracted the backing of some 50 of his fellow assembly members. It claims that France is becoming more centralised around the capital, and that speakers with regional accents are being turned down for jobs or promotions on the basis of how far their natural accent varies from the Parisian norm.
Does that problem exist in Belgium? The RTBF set out to find out.
Belgium is much smaller than France, but it has a variety of regional accents, not to mention three languages.
However according to the anti-discrimination agency Unia, discrimination on the basis of accent may or may not be unlawful.
“In principle, discrimination on the basis of language is prohibited by law,” said Denis Bouwen, spokesperson for Unia.
“We have considered it necessary to mount some suitable structure for quite a few years, now, but this has still not been done. Unia has still no competence in the matter. But we would be very interested.”
Unia often receives complaints of language use – a French-speaker speaking French in Flanders, or vice versa. But the organisation has no remit to deal with those matters, which they refer to other authorities such as the permanent commission on language.
In cases of language ability in work, then Unia can step in. But the rule here is proportionality: an operator in a Flemish call-centre needs to have an adequate command of Dutch, whereas the problem is less evident in the case of a Flemish gardener working in Wallonia.
In the case of accent alone, complaints are judged on a case by case basis. In one French-speaking call centre, applicants with a Dutch accent were refused because the accent was considered to put off callers, despite the applicant’s command of French being perfectly adequate.
However, if the matter of accent is being used as a proxy for more overt racism, the case is more clear. In 2012 Unia (then still known as the Centre took on the case of a man refused a job as a telephonist because he had ‘a foreign accent’. In fact the man was of African origin, and spoke French with the accent of his country.
Unia deemed the company’s decision to be covert racism, and took action.
“After the intervention of MRAX [the Movement Against Racism, Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia] and the Centre, the temp agency had to admit that the facts were in violation of the anti-discrimination law,” Unia recalls on its website.
“The case led to an out of court compromise and compensation of three months gross salary for the victim. At the same time, the company undertook to work towards optimising its diversity and non-discrimination policies, in collaboration with the Centre and MRAX.”