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Policy Reporting and Data Development
Labour Standards and Workplace Equity
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada
Employment equity, one of the pillars of Canadian social policy, promotes equality in the workplace for four groups: women, Aboriginal Peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities. These groups were designated by a royal commission in 1984 as targets of special measures to eradicate conditions of disadvantage in the workforce.
The Government of Canada celebrated the first centennial of the Federal Labour Program in 2000, an indication of its long-standing involvement in workplace issues. Labour legislation has developed in response to market dynamics and the need to address workers' rights and the barriers hindering, among others, Aboriginal Peoples and members of visible minority groups from obtaining employment opportunities.
Employment equity is rooted in labour issues. The 1944 Declaration of the International Labour Organization identifies equal opportunity for all citizens in every country as top priority in its opening statement:
(a) All human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity .
The Declaration affirms the need to eliminate the barriers facing individuals in the labour market, to ensure:
(b) The employment of workers in the occupations in which they can have the satisfaction of giving the fullest measure of their skill and attainments and make their greatest contribution to the common well-being.
It also emphasized the need to eradicate barriers to success even before entry into the labour market, through:
(j) The assurance of equality of educational and vocational opportunity.
Laws existed in the late 19th century to protect women and children from long working hours and exploitative, unsafe working conditions. In 1900, fair wage policies began to develop, as did provisions for worker's compensation and unionization rights . Parliament furthered the process in 1909 with the Labour Department Act.
In the first half of the 20th century, however, discrimination issues were not yet on the national agenda. Women and other minority groups, including persons with disabilities, were excluded, implicitly and explicitly, from employment opportunities, or were restricted to certain low-paid jobs.
As Canada's population grew in the early part of the century, doubling from 5.4 million in 1901 to 10.4 million thirty years later, the number of industrial workers increased . Discrimination against women, members of visible minorities, Aboriginal Peoples and persons with disabilities became increasingly overt, and, accordingly, the need for more precise labour legislation was recognized.
Laws were put in place in the 1950s to prohibit employers and trade unions from discriminating against employees on the grounds of race, colour, religion or national origin. Equal pay legislation was also adopted at this time. These changes reflected an emerging understanding of the consequences of discrimination in the workplace. Government also effected anti-discrimination legislation to protect the rights of women and minorities in the 1970s and 1980s.
According to the 2001 census, there were about one million Aboriginal persons in Canada, 3.3% of a total population of almost 30 million. However, they made up only 2.6% of the Canadian labour force that totaled over 16 million. In 1986, this group was designated as being underrepresented in the labour market (because of unemployment, low salaries, job concentration, and lack of opportunities).
Substantial efforts were made this past century to help Canada's Aboriginal Peoples improve their standard of living and gain more control over their affairs. However, inequalities continued through the 1990s. In 2002, Aboriginal Peoples had a lower life expectancy compared to the Canadian average, a lower participation in the labour force (61.4% compared to 66.5%) and a higher rate of unemployment (19.1% compared to 7.1%). Significant wage gaps between Aboriginal Peoples and other Canadians exist. Aboriginal men earned 85.4 cents for every dollar earned by all men in 2002 for full-time work, while Aboriginal women earned 87.3 cents for every dollar earned by all women. This salary gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal groups narrowed slightly in 2002 .
In 2001, there were 4.0 million members of visible minority groups in Canada, representing 13.0% of the population . An increasing number of visible minority immigrants prompted the first federal Multiculturalism Policy in October 1971 and the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977. There was an emerging awareness of discrimination - overt forms were no longer accepted - but it was not possible to fully identify and eradicate the more covert, systemic problems and end discrimination overnight through legislative measures.
Statistical evidence belies the existence of continuing discrimination. For example, salary gaps are wide between visible minorities and other Canadians . Although this group has more education than the average Canadian population, the proportion of visible minorities in managerial and professional occupations is much smaller.
In a 1997 study of the federal Public Service, John Samuels found that a range of barriers played a role in restricting visible minority recruitment and career advancement . These included the relative inflexibility of public service hiring practices, the manipulation of hiring and promotion processes in favour of pre-selected candidates, and a lack of leadership from upper management . Other factors included culturally-biased selection processes, the devaluation of foreign credentials, lack of accountability in the Employment Equity process, and the failure to recognize the benefits of a more diverse workforce.
In May 1999, Statistics Canada conducted a survey of federal Public Service employees. While 87% of respondents indicated that every individual, regardless of race, colour, gender or disability would be, or is, accepted as an equal member of their workplace, 18% said they had experienced discrimination and 20% said they had experienced harassment. In comparison, 30% of respondents who self-identified as Aboriginal persons and 33% of members of visible minorities said they had experienced discrimination.
According to a 2003 Statistics Canada survey, Ethnic Diversity: portrait of a multicultural society, 36.0% of members of visible minority groups reported feeling or experiencing discrimination. In 64% of the cases, discrimination or unfair treatment occured in the workplace. The Canadian Human Rights Commission, in their 2003 Annual Report, states that 26.0% of discrimination complaints were signed by members of visible minorities and 82.0% of all complaints to the CHRC were workplace-related.
Employment equity in Canada emerged as a response to decades of discriminatory practices against women, Aboriginal Peoples, members of visible minority groups, and persons with disabilities. Building on the conditions that existed in the first six decades of the 20th century, the federal government initiated legislation and programs in order to address the problems faced by these four groups in the Canadian labour market:
A Royal Commission was established in 1983 to study equal employment opportunities. This Commission, chaired by Judge Rosalie Abella, tabled a report, Equality in Employment, in November 1984. The report states that employment equity is a strategy designed to eliminate the present and residual effects of discrimination and to open the competition for employment opportunities to those arbitrarily excluded .
In 1985, the federal government announced three major initiatives in response to the Abella report:
Under the 1986 Act, federally regulated private employers with 100 employees or more were required to develop and implement equity plans and programs that identify and eliminate workplace barriers to four designated groups: women, Aboriginal Peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities.
The 1986 Employment Equity Act did not cover the federal Public Service and did not include enforcement mechanisms. Thus, in 1991, a Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to review the Employment Equity Act. The Committee heard all major stakeholders and those with a special interest in equity issues. Following the review of the hearings, the Committee produced a report entitled A Matter of Fairness, which contained 31 recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the Act. The Committee recommended the inclusion of the federal Public Service under the Act, the elaboration of guidelines to assist employers in its implementation, and the empowerment of the Canadian Human Rights Commission to monitor and enforce the Act.
In 1992, in anticipation of legislative change, the Public Service Reform Act was introduced, transforming voluntary employment equity policies in the public service into mandatory requirements under the Financial Administration Act and the Public Service Employment Act.
The current Employment Equity Act received royal assent on December 15, 1995. The Act and its Regulations subsequently came into force on October 24, 1996, creating a new legislative framework for employment equity that governs both private and public sector employers under federal jurisdiction. These employers were mandated to comply with all the requirements of the new Act by October 1997, one year after it had come into force.
The purpose of the Act remained consistent from 1986 to 1995 - that is, to achieve equality in the workplace:
(…) so that no person shall be denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability and, in the fulfillment of that goal, to correct the conditions of disadvantage in employment experienced by women, aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities by given effect to the principles that employment equity means more than treating persons in the same way but also requires special measures and the accommodation of differences.
The new Act required each employer to (a) conduct a workforce survey;
(b) undertake a workforce analysis; (c) conduct a review of its human resource policies and practices; (d) prepare an employment equity plan; and (e) report annually to the government.
The 1995 Act improved upon its 1986 model and was strengthened in the following areas:
While the new Act was perceived by business and trade unions as a positive measure, integral to good business practices and a necessary human resources tool, there were yet concerns. Chief among these were:
The Act encountered some negative backlash due to its somewhat controversial nature (as well as the repeal of a similar program in Ontario). In order to combat this, there are several key principles that employment equity has maintained, such as:
All Canadians, regardless of their personal, ethnic or cultural origins, should be able to enter the workforce and advance according to their ability.
The best methods of ensuring compliance with the legislation are persuasion and education, rather than coercion. Employers are asked to make reasonable efforts to implement their employment equity plan. If implemented, the plan would constitute reasonable progress in achieving employment equity. Any finding of non-compliance entails a negotiated undertaking between CHRC and the employer's representative. A direction is issued by CHRC only if negotiation does not succeed. Either party has the right to ask for the case to be referred to an employment equity Tribunal.
HRSDC provides support both in terms of resources, information and technical tools to assist employers in understanding and fulfilling their obligations. It also recognises the efforts and special initiatives of employers in achieving their employment equity goals, through such programs as the Merit Awards.
Between 1987 and 2002, the representation of members of the four designated groups in the workforce under the Employment Equity Act has increased.
The representation of Aboriginal Peoples rose by almost a third between 1998 and 2002 to 1.7%, against a labour market availability of 2.6%. The highest concentrations of these employees in 2001 were in the Transportation industrial sector (39%) and Communications (29%); 20% were in Banking, and 12% were in the Other sectors. The 2002 representation of Aboriginal Peoples in the Banking sector was 1.1%, 1.4% in Communications, 2.3% in Transportation, and 2.6% in Other sectors.
The representation of members of visible minorities increased by almost a quarter between 1998 and 2002 to 12.2%, against a 2001 labour market availability of 12.6%. It was highest in Banking at 18.4% in 2002, and lowest in the Other Sectors at 7.0%. Representation in Communications was 11.6% and was 8.0% in Transportation.
In the early years of the program, members of the designated groups were concentrated in clerical occupations. However, since 1987, Aboriginal Peoples and members of visible minorities have steadily progressed into occupations with more responsibilities and chances for advancement: for instance, more visible minorities are now in middle management and professional occupations. However, there is still a need for further progress in all occupational categories.
Aboriginal Peoples accounted for 1.9% of all hirings and 1.7% of all promotions, almost doubling their shares compared to 1987. Visible minorities faired very well, accounting for 12.8% of hirings in 2002, reaching a new peak of achievement. Visible minorities accounted for 15.2% of all promotions, the highest level obtained since 1987, when they accounted for 7.3%.
Over the decades the recognition of systemic discrimination and identification of traditional barriers to success fostered an evolution into the current environment of tolerance and legislated standards.
Acts of discrimination experienced by individual workers are not isolated incidents linked to specific workplaces, but are in fact universal ills. The focus shifted to solving these problems as they pertain to whole groups and not individuals.
Education,legislation, and the revision of traditionally-unjust practices provided for the eradication of long-established barriers to success. Employment equity was created in the 1980s with the aim of eliminating antiquated notions and practices from the workplace.
This new world of technology, converging international markets and dynamic trading arrangements is having a deep impact on the Canadian workforce and the way we do business. The corresponding challenges and opportunities are shaping the way we view labour standards, employment equity, occupational safety and health, wage structures, and the role of government, unions, and employers.
Employees, including those represented and covered by the Employment Equity Act, now work in multidisciplinary environments that demand multi-skilled labourers. Canadian businesses cannot afford to discriminate against a talented visible minority and Aboriginal workforce.
In its annual report for the year 2000, the International Labour Organization warned that the process of globalisation is hurting workers' rights and eroding related gains in the workplace. Many countries do not have the legislation and programs in place to prepare them for the worst case scenarios. Some countries do sign on to international agreements but then ignore them, engendering a lack of preparedness to face a competitive world, a decline in labour standards, and a rise in discriminatory practices.
Canada has programs and legislation in place that, if properly implemented and executed, will make it immune to the negative impacts of globalisation on individuals and will serve to make the nation a role model for the rest of the world.
The dynamic shifts in the Canadian workforce have created and demanded a national agenda for women, Aboriginal Peoples, persons with disabilities, and members of visible minorities. As the population of members of visible minorities grows over the next decade, so too will an important pool of skilled labour. In order to tap the full potential of such an increasingly diverse workforce, Canada continues to modify its policies and programs.
Workplace Equity, one such program, leads to better human resources management systems, by removing barriers and facilitating the development and upward mobility of all skilled people.
Employment equity is good for business, not only from a client service perspective, but also from a productivity perspective whereby skills and human resources are diverted to where their contributions are maximised.
Participation in a global economy will depend on the skills and contributions of all workers. Markets are expanding and discrimination will prove costly to the countries that do not remove barriers and implement corrective measures.
 Declaration concerning the Aims and Purpose of the International Labour Organization (PDF), Part II, "The Philadelphia Declaration", 1944. ILO Web Site. [back]
 The Criminal Code, 1939. [back]
 Status of Women Canada, Statistics on Women in Canada throughout the 20th century, October 2000, pg. 10. [back]
 2002 Minister's Annual Report on Employment Equity, pg. 64. [back]
 Tran, Kelly. "Visible Minorities in the Labour Force: 20 Years of Change". Statistics Canada Catalogue No. 11-008, pg.7. [back]
 Pendakur, K. and Pendakur, R. "The Colour of Money: Earning Differentials Among Ethnic Groups in Canada", Canadian Journal of Economics, 31(3), 1998: 518-548. [back]
 John Samuel & Associates Inc.(1997). Visible Minorities and the Public Service of Canada. [back]
 Summarized in paper, "101 Barriers to Employment of Visible Minorities in the Federal Public Service", Kamal Dib, 1999. [back]
 Quoted in A. Bakan and A. Kobayashi, Employment Equity Policy in Canada: an Interprovincial Comparison. March 2000, pg. 1. [back]
 2002 Minister's Annual Report on Employment Equity, pg. 7. [back]