The CLC’s colourful claims

The CLC’s colourful claims

Martin Loney

Is racial discrimination widespread in the Canadian labour market? The recent study by the Canadian Labour Congress, Is Work Working for Workers of Colour, is blunt. Visible minorities have better qualifications but are paid less and have less economic security than other Canadians and it is racial discrimination (that) plays the major role in creating and sustaining large differences. This is an explosive claim in a society that prides itself on its racial tolerance and one bound to receive full media coverage. Certainly it is a charge that could have only resulted from the most careful analysis of the data. Or is it?

Canada has a thriving race industry and a plethora of individuals who gain a living in the employment equity and diversity training fields. Claims of pervasive discrimination are grist to the mill, for if, as many economists have long argued, the market penalises employers who discriminate and rewards those who recruit on merit there is little need for their efforts. The Canadian data are very clear. When those born-in-Canada are compared visible minorities do as well as other Canadians. It was true in 1986, when the federal government introduced its burdensome employment equity legislation, and its is true today. This might surprise those familiar with the cacophony of claims of victim status. Who has not heard that visible minority women are doubly disadvantaged?

Sociologist Monica Boyd, a feminist and supporter of preferential hiring, examined 1986 census data in search of support for this claim. Unfortunately, at least for preferential hiring advocates, Canadian-born visible minority women actually earned more than their counterparts, a full 13 per cent more. Adjusting for age, education, area of residence, marital status and a host of other factors Professor Boyd was still left with a slight advantage for visible minority women. Rather than rejecting the need for preferential hiring legislation Boyd turned to the experience of immigrant women, where the comparison of apples and oranges offered greater scope to those looking for proof of the bigotry of their fellow citizens.

This was the approach of the NDP government in Ontario, in the early nineties, in drafting Bill 79 the province’s draconian employment equity legislation. It rests on the sociologically illiterate comparison of those who are raised in Canada, speaking one or more of the country’s official languages, holding Canadian qualifications and work experience with recent immigrants. The latter may be fluent in neither language, have qualifications which are not comparable (not all degrees are equal), and have little labour market seniority. The resulting employment and income differentials are then attributed to discrimination. The NDP and the myriad of advocacy groups that found generous funding from the Rae government regularly bombarded the province with the most egregious claims of victimisation. Racial minority women, for example, were reported to earn a mere 56 per cent of the income of similar white men. A figure which without taking into account age, labour market experience, hours worked, language competency and a host of other variables speaks only to the polemical nature of such discussions.

If this seems like a caricature it is unfortunately a description of the approach still taken ten years later by the Canadian Labour Congress. The Congress’s senior economist, Andrew Jackson, makes no attempt to compare the Canadian-born, and it is unclear from the study or the bibliography if he is even aware of the evidence. Instead Jackson adopts the much more promising tack of grouping all racialized’ workers together. The semantics are worth noting, the report was launched at a CLC conference in Toronto, perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the world. The country’s largest university, the University of Toronto, boasts that 47.5 per cent of its students are visible minorities, but to the CLC they are racialized victims. Jackson tells us that racialized workers made up 10.3 per cent of the workforce, he concludes that absent discrimination they should hold a proportionate share of jobs within each occupational category. Those who have not had Jackson’s opportunity to study the issue in depth might nonetheless ask by quite what process groups whose representation in the population has tripled in the last twenty years might have secured such an outcome. Many of those employed as teachers; firefighters, police officers and senior public servants were recruited at a time when only four per cent of the Canadian population were visible minorities. The assertion of the right to a proportionate share is the more remarkable, coming from a n organisation whose own myopic focus on seniority guarantees that Buggins will get the promotion or avoid the lay-off irrespective of merit or its absence. Buggins will of course be disproportionately white.

The CLC report may be worthless; an indication of how little the Congress cares about serious research or about the social consequences of telling visible minority Canadians that discrimination is rampant but it will be regularly cited as yet further evidence that Canada is racist. Those who share the Congress’s enthusiasm for reaching for any number that proves the point will no doubt repeat the claim that even among the Canadian-born, visible minority male workers were much less likely to be in the top 20 per cent of income earners than the other Canadian-born. Perhaps like Mr. Jackson they will believe this is conclusive evidence of discrimination. But surely someone will remind the CLC’s researchers that the reason why we age standardise such studies is because age makes a powerful difference to earnings, and yes visible minorities graduates are younger. You see Mr. Jackson back in 1960s and 70s there were very few of visible minorities graduating in Canada, and that, not racial discrimination explains the difference.

Martin Loney is the author of The Pursuit of Division: Race, Gender and Preferential Hiring in Canada (McGill-Queen’s)