LGBTQI+ Worker Protections - An Essential Component of Inclusive Market Development


An Essential Component of Inclusive Market Development
Photo credit: Mikheil Meparishvili, Equality Movement

This post was authored by Jay Gilliam, Senior LGBTQI+ Coordinator, USAID.

For USAID, inclusive and sustainable development necessitates economic opportunity for all populations in society, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex people and all people of diverse genders and sexualities (LGBTQI+). In practice, a central benchmark for assessing progress on this goal is that LGBTQI+ persons are able to bring their full selves — including their labor, dynamacy, and entrepreneurialism — to workplaces free from discrimination, intimidation, harassment, stigmatization, and exclusion. 

Strikingly, only around one-third of countries worldwide prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace to some extent; even fewer do so on the basis of gender identity. In short, too many LGBTQI+ persons globally lack explicit, unequivocal employment protections when they encounter discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics. Not only does this diminish individual livelihoods and personal career trajectories, it also hinders economic growth.

Sadly, comprehensive data on the prevalence and impact of LGBTQI+ discrimination in the workplace is sparse. USAID’s 2014 LGBT Vision for Action underscores “ … there are serious gaps in available data on the income levels and economic status of LGBT persons in most developing countries, requiring extrapolation from data that are available elsewhere.” However, many studies point to the impact of LGBTQI+ workplace discrimination on individuals, communities, and ultimately whole economies. 

According to the findings of a joint 2018 UN Development Program and International Labour Organization Report, LGBTI People and Employment: Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC) in China, the Philippines and Thailand, 60 percent of respondents reported they had seen a job advertisement specifically excluding their sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, the report discovered that of those surveyed, 21 percent in China, 31 percent in the Philippines, and 23 percent in Thailand reported being “harassed, bullied or discriminated against by others at work due to their SOGIESC status in their current or latest workplace.” In the United States, a recent Williams Institute study also found that 9 percent of “LGBT employees” surveyed reported experiencing discrimination in the previous year and 46 percent reported “unfair treatment at some point in their lives.” 

Speaking to the UNDP-ILO report’s findings, Jaco Cilliers, Chief of Policy and Program Support at the United Nations Development Programme Bangkok Regional Hub, said, “Access to decent work forms an essential part of LGBTI people’s lives and is deeply intertwined with their socio-economic empowerment and ability to participate in the public sphere … Discrimination towards LGBTI people in the workplace also represents a fundamental challenge to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s commitment to ‘leave no one behind'.” 

A recent 2022 Open for Business study from Keller, et al also found a positive correlation across the world between economic resilience and “LGBTQ+ inclusion,” including employment discrimination protections. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also adversely impacted economic opportunity for the LGBTQI+ community in this space. In 2020, for example, dozens of UN independent human rights watchdogs issued a joint statement underscoring the pandemic’s adverse economic impacts on LGBTQI+ persons. Acknowledging the reality that LGBTQI+ persons are disproportionately represented in the informal sector–a phenomenon that Open for Business calls “occupational segregation” that results from discrimination in the formal sector–the group of experts warned the pandemic was creating risks for LGBTQI+ individuals, including income loss, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation.

Open For Business also commissioned a study throughout 12 countries in the English-speaking Caribbean in order to quantify the macroeconomic cost of LGBT+ exclusion. On just one dimension alone, labor market discrimination, Crehan et al. finds significant challenges for LGBT+ people, resulting in a regional loss between USD $32 - 272 million (up to 0.37% of regional GDP), as well as a wage gap in which LGBT+ people earn 11% less than all else. 

Turning the tide to ensure LGBTQI+ persons have access to and can benefit from decent work must include strengthened international commitments to LGBTQI+ economic livelihoods and dignity, as well as partnerships that drive both accountability and action at all levels.

The February 2020 Presidential Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons Around calls on the United States to promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons, including combatting discrimination though its diplomatic and foreign assistance efforts. Similarly. USAID’s 2021 Economic Growth Policy commits USAID “to work to improve labor rights and combat the stigma, discrimination, and lack of access that contribute to high unemployment rates for socially marginalized groups  including ethnic and religious minorities, persons with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTI persons, and other vulnerable populations.” 

Recognizing the urgency of leading by example, Executive Order 13988 calls for strengthened enforcement of nondiscrimination provisions related to sexual orientation and gender identity throughout the federal government. 

USAID has developed a new staff training focused on “LGBTQI+ Inclusion in USAID’s Workplace,” set to be launched in September 2022. In tandem, USAID is also revising the 2014 LGBT Vision for Action into the agency’s first-ever LGBTQI+ Policy. This process has included consultations with technical experts, implementing partners, activists, and employers on economic empowerment, private sector engagement, and livelihoods. Finally, in an effort to recognize and respect gender non-binary and gender non-conforming persons, USAID changed its internal Style Guide to include a singular “they/them/their” pronoun, which was previously not included.

Elsewhere, a new “LGBTQI Report Card” initiative from the Council for Global Equality and Franklin & Marshall College Global Barometers for Gay and Transgender Rights assesses the LGBTQI+ human rights records of the 110 governments invited to the inaugural Biden-Harris Administration Summit for Democracy. One of the categories that the report cards measure is “Socio-Economic Rights,” which includes three indicators on workplace protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics. The report cards will be updated annually with the goal of incentivizing LGBTQI+  reforms from Summit participants.

Together, this underscores that robust employment protections for the LGBTQI+ community are key for transformative economic growth, recovering from recent global shocks and stressors, and the protection of livelihoods. 

Throughout August, USAID’s Inclusive Development Hub and Marketlinks will delve into this topic and host a webinar later this month. Join us!