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Audit lays bare racism and sexism in Brussels fire brigade

16:50 05/05/2021

Nearly two-thirds of women have experienced misogyny and the same number have experienced racism working as a firefighter in Brussels. The figures come from an extensive audit carried out within the department.

State secretary Pascal Smet (one.brussels), responsible for emergency medical and fire services in the capital, launched the independent investigation last year following well-publicised incidents of racist abuse within the brigade.

The audit was carried out by the Brussels work consultancy bureau Moore. They studied internal documents, surveyed more than 450 members of staff – both firefighters and administrative – and carried out in-depth interviews with 45 people. Johan Carton of Moore met with a parliamentary commission this week to discuss the report.

The main conclusion is that there is structural discrimination within the service and little faith that complaints will lead to any changes. While a full two-thirds of women and people of colour say they have been the victim of inappropriate comments or behaviour, only half of them complained about it to a superior.

‘Not a reflection of Brussels society’

“Three in 10 women and three in 10 men with a migration background testified that their supervisors did not treat everyone the same or did not respond appropriately to discriminatory incidents,” Carton told Bruzz. “Women also find that recruitment practices do not treat women equally.”

The problem was seen much more among firefighters than among administrative staff. Firefighters also complained that racist, sexist and homophobic language in the workplace is the norm.

When looking at the staff surveyed as a whole, a full 40% of respondents thought that such jokes had their place in the brigade. That dropped to 20% when taking women and men with a migration background separately.

Only 1% of firefighters on the ground in Brussels are women and only 9% across the entire brigade are women. Only 10% of total staff are people of colour. “The brigade isn’t really a reflection of Brussels society,” said Carton.

Brussels' first two women firefighters
Brussels first women firefighters were hired only in 2004

He also noted that the seriousness of the problem differs radically from team to team, and that the problem was most serious among specific personnel. “Still, the perception is that the directors underestimate and minimise the problem.”  

The audit make recommendations, including an external ombudsman to handle complaints, leadership and communication training and a reform of recruitment methods with targets. They also suggest a clear policy on behaviour and use of social media as well as a uniform sanctioning procedure that would apply to everyone.

“It’s crucial that the fire brigade has a clear mission, vision and set of values,” Carton told a parliamentary commission. “Today, they don’t have that. And if that doesn’t exist, you can hardly expect 1,300 people to be on the same page.”

For his part, Smet said that he would respond officially to the audit and the commission meeting on 18 May. “We finally have an objective summary,” he told Bruzz. “It’s now the job of the directors to implement these recommendations. We will support them in changing this work culture. This is something we will work hard to achieve over the coming months and years.”

Photos, from top: ©Laurie Dieffembacq/BELGA, ©Herwig Vergult/BELGA

 

Written by Lisa Bradshaw