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The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada > News & Events > Communications Magazine > Vol. 36, No. 4, Autumn 2010 > Exploring the Increasing Vulnerability of Employment Equity Groups
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Exploring the Increasing Vulnerability of Employment Equity Groups

The Employment Equity Act (EEA) was first adopted in 1986. Its origins can be traced back to a 1983 Royal Commission chaired by Judge Rosalie Abella. This commission identified the need for legislation that would eliminate the effects of discrimination in the Canadian labour market and promote equal employment opportunities for four historically-disadvantaged groups: women, Aboriginal peoples, people with disabilities and visible minorities.

Initially, the EEA covered only crown corporations and federally-regulated private sector employers with 100 employees or more (i.e. banks and telecommunication companies). The 1995 review extended its coverage to the federal public service and to private provincially-regulated employers participating in the Federal Contractors Program. The new EEA required each employer to:

  • undertake a workforce analysis to measure the representation of the four designated employment equity (EE) groups
  • review its human resource policies
  • prepare an employment equity plan
  • report annually to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which was given the authority to monitor the act and the conduct-compliance audits

Based on widely-shared Canadian values of inclusiveness and fairness, the EEA is considered as one of the main pillars of Canadian social policy during the past three decades. This article will look at the workplace difficulties experienced by the four designated EE groups in the federal public service.

Victim of Discrimination and Harassment

Using data extracted from the 2002, 2005, and 2008 Public Service Employee Surveys (PSES), we compared EE groups’ perceptions of harassment and discrimination to the average responses of all public service employees. Results revealed very alarming findings. In fact, our comparative analysis showed that a significantly-higher proportion of EE- designated groups were affected by discrimination and harassment behaviours attributed to both their colleagues and their managers.

Discrimination at Work

Our data covering the 2002-2008 period showed that, with the exception of women, employees with disabilities, visible minorities and Aboriginal people were more likely to be victims of discrimination. As graph 1 illustrates that 29% of Aboriginal employees, 30% of visible minorities, and 41% of employees with disabilities believe they were victims of discriminatory behaviour in 2008. These proportions were almost twice as high as the federal public service average of 17%. Unlike visible minorities whose 2008 figure dropped slightly from 34% in 2005 to 30% in 2008, survey results showed a higher proportion of Aboriginal employees and people with disabilities reported they were discriminated against by their managers or their colleagues. 41% of federal employees with disabilities think they were victims of discrimination in 2008. This rate is significantly higher than the overall percentage in the federal public service.

Impact of Discrimination on Careers

The 2008 PSES results revealed also that 18% of women, 23% of Aboriginal people, 27% of visible minorities, and 31% of employees with disabilities think that discrimination had adversely affected their career progress. As illustrates graph 2, these figures were significantly higher than the overall government-wide proportion of only 14%.

Harassment at Work

Results of the last three PSES showed a significantly rapid rate of increase in the proportion of federal public service employees who think they were victims of harassment at work. The overall proportion of federal employees who reported harassment increased from 21% in 2002 to 28% in 2008. Results of the four EE groups were much more alarming than the public service-wide statistics. The proportion of employees with disabilities who reported harassment at work increased markedly from 36% in 2002 to 39% in 2005 to a disturbing 49% in 2008. Data also showed a significant rise in the proportion of Aboriginal employees who reported harassment at work. Rates increased from 30% in 2002 to 33% in 2005, and reached 42% in 2008. In addition, rates for women and visible minorities have shown the same increasing trend in the number of harassment cases in the federal public service over the 2002-2008 period. The percentage of women who reported harassment rose from 22% in 2002 to 31% in 2008. Similarly, 33% of visible minorities working for the federal government reported harassment in 2008, compared to 26% in 2002 and 27% in 2005.

Managers Response

The spectacularly sharp increase in the proportion of federal employees who reported discrimination and harassment between 2002 and 2008 led to increased employee dissatisfaction with the way managers respond to matters related to harassment or discrimination. The overall percentage of federal employees who were satisfied with the way their managers addressed problems of harassment and discrimination dropped significantly from 84% in 2002 to 65% in 2008. EE-designated groups do not make the exception of this general trend. The proportion of women and visible minorities who were satisfied with the way managers responded to matters related to harassment or discrimination decreased significantly from 84% and 79% in 2002 to reach the low levels of 63% and 65%, respectively. The results of the Aboriginal peoples and employees with disabilities also showed a dramatic drop in the level of satisfaction from 79% and 72% in 2002 to 63% and 61% in 2008, respectively.

An Uncertain Future

Unlike most studies and reports focusing mainly on the representational statistics of the four EE-designated groups, our study attempted to go beyond the statistical debate to explore the real workplace problems faced by women, visible minorities, people with disabilities, and Aboriginal peoples working for the federal government. Our findings revealed that, with few exceptions, all the designated EE groups have experienced a growing vulnerability in the federal public service. Data collected over the 2002-2008 period showed that, compared to the majority of public service employees, an increasing proportion of women, Aboriginal peoples, visible minorities, and employees with disabilities reported experiencing harassment and discrimination at work. Additional results showed also a dramatic drop in the proportion of EE employees who were satisfied with the way managers respond to matters related to harassment and discrimination at work. We also found that a growing number of EE members think that their career was adversely affected by discrimination.

Despite the positive results reached by the federal public service toward a continuous improvement of the representation rate of all EE groups in different occupational categories, more effort needs to be dedicated to fight the rise in workplace harassment and discrimination. The failure to properly respond and reduce harassment and discrimination problems may result in a significant drop of the representation rate of all designated EE groups in the medium and long term. In addition, management’s failure to address ethical problems in the federal public service may also lead to a dramatic increase in employee mental health problems such as depression, stress, and burnout.

The recent government decision to do away with the mandatory long form census will certainly have a negative impact on the implementation of the EEA. In fact, the lack of accurate census data on the workforce availability of each group in Canadian labour markets will have a serious impact on employers’ ongoing efforts to improve the representation rate of the under-represented groups.

Contributor: Tawfik Said
Compensation and Policy Analyst