Back when Fatima Mansions was all social housing, Tasha Smith didn’t see it as a problem at first.
But when she didn’t get responses from shop assistant jobs applying from her own address in Fatima Mansions – back when the complex was all social housing – she began to question why that might be. She had done all the right courses, she said.
When she applied for the same jobs from her mother’s address, she got interviews, she said. “It wasn’t just one, but it was a few times.”
It was a move she saw others do too. “I know people who used to use their sister’s address. You find people who have their own homes,” she said. “It’s just the way it was. What could you do?”
At the moment, Irish legislation stops people from discriminating against others on nine grounds, from gender to family status.
But socio-economic status is missed out, and some argue that it’s time for that to change.
When we’re looking at how to break down barriers to opportunity in the inner city, for example, this sort of thing should be looked at too, said Niall Crowley, the equality expert and former head of the Equality Authority. “It should be part of that.”
As Crowley sees it, the experiences of people like Smith aren’t isolated and that’s why he would like to see the legislation updated.
“One, I suppose immediate reason is because discrimination is happening on that ground,” said Crowley.
As he sees it, it is happening in employment, but also in housing, and in education and it has probably gotten worse during austerity.
While there has been research that shows how immigrants or ethnic minorities are discriminated against in the job market – you’re twice as likely to get invited to interview for a job if you have an traditional Irish name, than if you don’t, according to a 2009 study by researchers at the Economic and Social Research Institute – there don’t seem to have been studies of whether those from working-class backgrounds face similar barriers. But there are some indicators that they do.
For the final quarter of 2014, 41 percent of people who reported that they felt they had been discriminated against believed that the ground for discrimination was not one of the nine grounds in the equality legislation, according to data from the Central Statistics Office. To some degree, there is recognition that this is an issue, says Crowley.
It is now illegal to discriminate against people on the Housing Assistance Payment and the government has been looking at what to do about fees and schools, he said. “It’s beginning to creep in so why not do it comprehensively and seriously?”
The nine grounds currently included in anti-discrimination legislation in Ireland are put forward as comprehensive, he said. “But why say you’re comprehensive and leave out one very common ground?”
Others agree. Social Democrat Councillor Gary Gannon says that we recognise a multitude of different forms of discrimination, “but we don’t actually talk about one of the biggest prohibitors from people advancing in Irish society, which is social class”.
“There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence that if you have a certain address it will preclude you from getting a job,” he says.
Independent Councillor Christy Burke, who represents the north inner city, says he has experienced this himself.
“I suffered it as a young fella,” says Burke, who grew up in the Hardwicke Street Flats. “Once you mentioned the flats you become socially and economically useless, according to them,” he says.
So he applied for jobs using a neighbour’s address, who was also named Burke and lived around the corner on Dorset Street. “It mightn’t be as prominent as it was then, but it still happens,” he says.
Would it Work?
More than a decade ago, the Department of Justice looked at arguments that the groups that fall under discrimination legislation should be expanded, and decided against it. That position hasn’t changed.
“There are no plans at present to introduce socio-economic status as a ground for discrimination however the legislation is kept under continuing review,” said a press officer at the Department of Justice recently by email.
Some have raised questions about whether it would work, and, in particular, whether it is possible to clearly define class.
“The issue of a socio-economic ground would, in my view, create a very difficult drafting job because you would have to define what is a different socio-economic group,” said Richard Grogan, a solicitor specialising in employment law.
“Is it done on the basis of education? Is it done on where somebody comes from? Is it done on income? Or on their parents’ income?” he said.
If somebody has left school and gone to college and is applying for their first job, they might never have earned before. “They’d all be unwaged,” he says.
Others agree. “To say you come from a socio-economic background … I don’t know how you would show that,” said Jayson Murray, who grew up between Pearse Street and Ringsend and now works as a barrister.
Would you do it on the basis that somebody has a strong Dublin accent? Or a particular address? He points to the Docklands as illustrative of the difficulty.
There’s such diversity in that area now, he said. Do you say, because I grew up in the Docklands? Or I went to school in the area? “How is it practically going to work?”
As Murray sees it, it would be more important to tackle the drop-out rates from schools and the rates of people going to college. “The root of most causes in the inner city … It’s a lack of education.”
But Gannon points to the success of Access programmes, which assist people from deprived areas to access higher education and have found a way to target them. “We have all the necessary data in place,” he said.
Crowley also doesn’t buy the argument that it would be any harder to enforce than some of the other grounds that already exist – and there are other places to look towards to see how it might work.
“More European member states have some form of protection on grounds of economic status,” said Crowley, and more and more people are taking cases on those grounds. “It’s a mature ground with a body of casework.”
Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary and France have all found different ways to define socio-economic grounds, he says.
Outside of Europe too, in New Zealand and Canada, there are laws that focus on social inclusion and social origin, said Noelle Higgins, a senior law lecturer at NUI Maynooth.
(In Quebec, “social condition is the situation you have in society because of your income, your occupation or your level of education,” according to a spokesperson from the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission.)
Says Higgins: “It would be difficult, but not impossible to implement this in Irish law, given that there is not an official class system in the state.”
Implementation would be more clear cut in places like India, which have a clear caste system, says Higgins.
As long as you define it in terms of disadvantage so that it cannot be used to challenge anti-poverty programmes for example, Crowley thinks it can work.
The struggle for equality so far has been separated into two strands, one focused on identity-based equality and the other on socio-economic equality, and the state response to both has been fragmented. “It makes the overall search for equality weaker,” he said.
“If we look at the way politics is going (…) the rise of the far-right, we would be foolish not to unite concerns of identity equality to those of socio-economic equality,” he said. “It’s creating false divides that are hugely damaging to society.”
Some local councillors don’t see that as a big issue yet in Dublin.
Burke said he wasn’t aware of any rise in right-wing sentiment in any working-class areas of Dublin.
Gannon said that working-class people are not responsible for the rise of the far-right abroad either, or the election of Donald Trump: “I don’t think that is reflected in the figures or the data.”
Social class should be included in the grounds for discrimination, says Gannon, because it is holding people back from progressing, not because to not do so could cause division. “I think that is based on a false assumption that people who are economically deprived or marginalised are somehow going to start blaming foreigners or people of colour.”
“I haven’t seen that. I certainly haven’t seen it in my own community,” he said.