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The Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) is very pleased to note the statements of the Prime Minister, the Honourable Dr Keith Rowley to the effect that he does not support any aspect of behaviour which discriminates against people and which gives them rights that others do not have. This was in response to a question asked of him by journalist Golda Lee Bruce, whether he was okay with the fact that persons who claim to be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation have no recourse under the Equal Opportunity Act Chapter 22:03. This Act prohibits discrimination against individuals on seven status grounds (race, ethnicity, religion, sex, marital status, origin and disability) but sexual orientation is expressly excluded from protection. Although the Act includes sex as a status ground, section 3, the interpretation section, provides that “sex does not include sexual preference or orientation” The EOC is very encouraged to note that the Honourable Prime Minister promised to revisit any laws that undermine the constitutional right of equality of treatment.
The Constitution recognises that a number of fundamental rights and freedoms exist in Trinidad and Tobago, including the right to equality before the law and equality of treatment by a public authority. However, these rights are enforceable only against the State. A citizen cannot claim that a private individual, for example a private-sector employer, has breached these rights. Moreover, in order to enforce these rights, the citizen would have to file a motion before the high court. By contrast, the protection against discrimination provided by the Equal Opportunity Act applies to both the public sector and the private sector, so that a person can make a complaint against a non-State employer. In order to enforce the Act, a person who is aggrieved simply has to lodge a complaint with the EOC.
It should be noted that under section 27(1) (c) of the Equal Opportunity Act, the EOC is mandated “to keep under review the working of the Act and any relevant law and, when required or otherwise thinks it necessary, to draw up and submit proposals for amending them.” A proposal was submitted to the Office of the Attorney General by letter dated October 15, 2014, to include sexual orientation as a status ground for protection against discrimination. Previous proposals that the Commission had submitted to the Office of the Attorney General (for example, to include age as a status ground and to expand the definition of disability to include certain ailments such as HIV/AIDS, Cancer, and Multiple Sclerosis) were forwarded to the Law Reform Commission for research and reporting, but we are not aware of any action being taken with respect to the proposal of October 2014.
The EOC looks forward to urgent action being taken on our proposal of October 2014 to include sexual orientation as a status ground for protection against discrimination, and to the drafting and tabling of the necessary amendment Bill before Parliament.
Mrs. Lynette Seebaran-Suite,
Chairman, Equal Opportunity Commission.