In a debate with Italy's labour minister on 22 March, the EESC backed the Commission's initiative to reinforce the role and independence of national equality bodies in a bid to wipe out discrimination practices in EU labour markets.

The two sides said they shared the goals of the Commission's proposal for a directive on standards for national equality bodies aimed at increasing their effectiveness. The proposal had been made following the failure of the current legislative measures on equality to adequately enforce EU law on unequal treatment and discrimination.

In its opinion on Strengthening the role and independence of equality bodies adopted at the plenary session after the debate, the EESC stressed the importance of striking the right balance between the principle of subsidiarity and setting out binding standards for making national bodies stronger and more efficient – a position which was echoed by the Italian minister during the debate.

"The participation of diverse groups in the labour market is not only a matter of fairness. It makes great sense from an economic and social perspective. However, the Committee remains concerned that the protection against discrimination and inequality is not yet uniform throughout the Union, and supports strong mechanisms for their monitoring, including through the reinforcement of national equality bodies," EESC president Christa Schweng said.

Minister Calderone said her government agreed with the Commission's goal, however stressed that it would be important to ensure consistency with the national systems and bodies that already exist, such as equality councils in Italy that safeguard equality at both national and regional level.

"The inclusion we are talking about today must remain at the heart of the European social agenda, on an equal footing with the ongoing discussion about reforming the EU's economic and financial governance. We know how difficult it still is to ensure effective equal opportunities on the labour market. For some social groups there are still huge obstacles to accessing labour markets and social protection," Ms Calderone said.

The minister stressed the gender gap in employment rates was still over 10 % at the EU level. There was not a single country in the EU where this gender gap – to the detriment of women everywhere – did not exist. Young graduates also struggle to find a job. Persons with disabilities and legal migrants and refugees still encounter discrimination when looking for or trying to keep a job. (ll)