Effective human rights enforcement is one of the best investments a country can make.
History has shown that employers need government rules to ensure they treat all employees the same.
By: Mary Cornish Avvy Yao-Yao Go and John Rae, Published on Fri Feb 01 2013
At long last a measure of employment equity is coming to the Peel District School Board (PDSB) with its recently announced “Journey Ahead Action Plan.” This plan, which the PDSB states will “transform” its work sets out findings, timelines and tasks for “Equitable Hiring and Promotion” flows from a settlement of a human rights complaint by a teacher, Ranjit Khatkur who had alleged before the Hearings Tribunal of Ontario that the PDSB’s hiring and promotion practices were resulting in the systemic exclusion of applicants of racially and culturally diverse backgrounds. The 15-page Action Plan includes such measures as conducting a demographic survey of the school board workforce, removing artificial barriers to hiring, and training principals on how to conduct bias-free job interviews.
Sadly, PDSB is not the only workplace that is plagued with discrimination. Most employers, like the PDSB, don’t voluntarily change their practices. It often takes legal proceeding to compel them into action.
Just think where Khatkur and other worthy job applicants might be at this point had Ontario not repealed its 1993 Employment Equity Act.
Employment equity laws and policies focus on redressing inequalities by requiring employers to plan to end discriminatory practices facing women, racialized and aboriginal peoples, people living with disabilities and others who are similarly disadvantaged.
Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella’s 1984 royal commission report documented how these disadvantaged groups populate the bottom rungs of the labour market — facing systemic discriminatory barriers in getting and keeping good jobs and earning fair pay. Justice Abella found that “systemic discrimination,” while often not intentional, was embedded in the labour market and employers’ systems of hiring, promotion, conditions of work and pay. She called for employment equity laws and policies since insufficient progress was being made with voluntary measures or under a complaint-based human rights laws.
The 2004 Federal Pay Equity Task Force Report relying on Statistics Canada data again documented the pay disparities faced by these groups and called for strengthened pay equity laws to address them. The federal government rejected this report. While some progress has been made since 1986, a recently released Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, “A Living Wage as a Human Right,” documents how discrimination continues to affect the ability of many workers to earn a living wage. This persistent state of inequality continues while the income of the average CEO has grown to 189 times the income of the average Canadian.
Despite this evidence of widespread inequalities, Conservative governments have strongly opposed employment equity laws. In 1995, the Ontario Conservative government repealed Ontario’s then Employment Equity Act, 1993 based on false allegations that the law created reverse discrimination and arbitrary quotas. Nothing could have been further from the truth — the law just required employers to make sure that all qualified candidates were considered on an equal footing.
The Federal Employment Equity Act and Federal Contractors Program were established in 1986 as a way for Canada to move forward to meet its international and domestic human rights obligations. Under the act and the program, there is a mandatory obligation for employers to first identify the barriers in their workplaces which are faced by these disadvantaged groups and then, working with a union if any to take steps to plan for the elimination of those barriers and enact positive measures, goals and targets which will lead to a more representative and inclusive workforce.
Yet last June, without notice or public consultation, Canadians woke up to discover that one of their important protections, the mandatory obligations of federal contractors to plan and work toward discrimination-free workplaces had been eliminated by a legislative amendment buried deep in the Federal omnibus budget bill.
Until June 2012, federal contractors had to commit to comply with the Employment Equity Act in order to obtain government contracts. More than 1,000 employers are currently covered by the program, involving 1.2 million employees. Now, the law leaves it to the minster’s discretion to decide what rules federal contractors should follow.
Why is it important for rules to be mandatory? Because history has shown that employers need government rules to ensure that they act fairly.
Employers are very familiar with developing plans which identify a problem and set targets and timetables for resolving that problem or developing a new product. Employment equity laws just require businesses to use that same model for maintaining discrimination-free workplace.
Effective human rights enforcement is one of the best investments a country can make. With disadvantaged groups struggling in this volatile economy and Canada needing to take advantage of the skills and qualifications of all its workers, this is not the time to scrimp on human rights enforcement. A labour market that allows vulnerable workers to be channelled into low-paid, undervalued work when the economy needs their skills will not be able to compete successfully in the global economy.
Planning to achieve and maintain employment equity will attract and retain the most talented workers, increase productivity, stimulate the economy and increase competitiveness while giving everyone equal opportunities to work. We need to strengthen the Federal Employment Equity Act and we hope the new premier-designate will bring similar legislation back to Ontario.
Mary Cornish is chair of the Equal Pay Coalition; Avvy Yao-Yao Go is director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic; John Rae is former president of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canad