Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to take part in this debate on the motion, which reads as follows:
That the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities be designated to review the Employment Equity Act, pursuant to section 44(1) of the said Act.
I would like to begin by stating that I would have liked a sub-committee to have been struck to review this act. The Standing Committee on Human Resources Development already has a lot of issues to address, in particular the entire matter of employment insurance, the committee's unanimous recommendations on this, the matter of social insurance numbers, and all the effects of the economic downturn and the recession, which unfortunately is going to be confirmed within days. There are, therefore, a great many issues with a significant social impact, but the decision was made that the act will be examined in committee. I do believe it is important that this statute be revised.
What we are told, essentially, is that the Employment Equity Act needs reviewing every five years by parliament in order to ensure that it meets the real needs of the population.
The House will recall that this was legislation introduced to help particular groups obtain employment more easily, not to be at the mercy of a system that encourages some to the detriment of others.
Over the years, especially in the 1970s, it became apparent that groups such as women, aboriginals, members of visible minorities and the disabled had much more trouble landing jobs with the federal government, federally regulated employers or federal crown corporations. Parliament therefore passed this legislation, which has been reviewed once. Clearly, some progress has been made.
I think that it is important to recognize that this is the result of a systemic approach. Nobody is suggesting that people are deliberately trying to eliminate these groups. I think that society has evolved in this regard. In fact, the majority of people conducting selection interviews or deciding on selection methods have become very aware of the need for equity for the groups in our society, but there are unfortunate unintended effects which can only be corrected through a systemic approach. That is the purpose of this legislation.
Earlier, I was listening to the Canadian Alliance member's speech. I think that it shows a profound ignorance of the situation facing federally regulated employers. In fact, I think that, but for this kind of legislation in recent years, the gaps would be even wider today.
The challenge is much worse for one group. I am referring to the disabled. We are often told that this is because it costs more to integrate them into society. I take issue with this. The government of Quebec has programs to help the disabled get jobs. These people regularly become productive workers. Their disability often even helps them to become more productive than their non-disabled colleagues.
For example, I knew of a deaf employee of the government of Quebec who worked as a typist. I can guarantee that her skills were second to none.
I do not think it is more costly to integrate these people, but we must have a global approach. If someone with a disability can be integrated into a workplace, it goes without saying that this person will feel better about himself. He will earn an income, be a full fledged member of society and buy goods. In the end, society will benefit. By contrast, if, as in past decades, that person stays home and is not given an opportunity to get a job, he will be more unhappy. That person will often take a lot of medication. This will create all sorts of complicated situations that are not pleasant for that person and for society.
Therefore, the government has a responsibility to ensure that it controls the market in terms of jobs, and that people who belong to the above mentioned classes will get another opportunity.
There are also areas that have greater difficulty integrating people with disabilities. This was and still is the case with the Canadian forces.
All sorts of situations were identified in recent years and would justify, when the act is reviewed, taking the time to see if indeed some measures should be taken to deal with this specific issue and to ensure that five years from now, when the act is reviewed again, a number of flaws will have been corrected.
There is another area where equal opportunities are not yet a reality. I am referring to management positions, where it is much more difficult to get results. In support positions, including in the public service, women are often well represented. However, additional efforts should be made when it comes to management level positions, and I hope that this issue will be taken into consideration when the act is reviewed.
This weak representation by minorities, particularly at the management level, has a negative impact on opportunities for hiring and advancement of members of minority groups. I referred earlier to a systemic effect; if the people responsible for hiring are members of the groups covered by the legislation, it is certain that there will be a positive impact as a result. It will be easier to ensure that the four groups concerned have a say and are selected.
I myself worked for several years in a position where I selected staff. I remember competitions for hiring where the committee composition made a difference. If the majority of the selection committee were women, its approach was different from a mostly male committee. I think that there needs to be an update on this kind of situation. This also holds true for the categories for aboriginal people, visible minorities and the disabled.
The selection committee can set an example, ensuring that all negative comments made by people unaware of the reality of these categories of individuals are eliminated. If someone from a category has attained the status of being responsible for selecting staff, this leads to more opportunities for others to be selected.
This provides an opportunity to ensure that the legislation can be even more effective in future, perhaps more refined in its effectiveness. Obviously the bill was put in place initially to correct major shortfalls, significant ones, very sizable ones, that existed at the time. The statistics made it very clear that there was discrimination even at entry level.
Now, at another level, action must be taken in order to ensure that, where results are significant but still insufficient, additional effort must be focused on attaining the targeted objective. The whole matter of quantifying the results attained, but also that of qualifying them, must be addressed in committee.
It must also not be lost sight of that the budget cuts and resulting hiring slowdown particularly affected minorities. The economic downturn is having the same effect again now. When there is an economic downturn, it is a matter of last hired, first fired, and this often means young people.
As well, there are older workers who cannot necessarily retrain easily for other types of employment. As for the situation that the public sector experienced, obviously the five-year period from 1994 to 1999, when there were severe job cuts, had an impact. Recruitment was cut altogether. This did not allow for increases in the proportions of targeted groups in order to meet the results anticipated by the legislation. This will need to be taken into consideration during the study.
Earlier I mentioned quantitative representation. Obviously this needs to be looked at, but we also need to look deeper, because statistics and figures will not provide us with solutions or allow us to make further progress.
The legislation applies to 400 federally regulated private sector and crown corporation employers. It defines, in fairly clear terms, employers' responsibilities with respect to the implementation of employment equity principles, without imposing major obligations. The same obligations are set out for private and public sector employers in terms of developing employment equity plans and programs.
The legislation also specifies that the implementation of employment equity principles does not require employers to establish quotas or measures that may cause undue hardship or create new positions.
So there is some leeway. During the study, it will be important to see if we need to be more or less stringent on this. It also affects the whole issue of bargaining agents and employee representatives.
The act provides the Canadian Human Rights Commission with the mandate of visiting workplaces to verify if the employer is complying with the requirements set out in the legislation and to force them to do so.
In my opinion, the committee will need to hear from many witnesses on each category of requirements set out in the act, including employee association and union representatives, employer representatives, experts from the sector, human resources consultants and human rights groups involved, to see how they approach the issue and where we are heading.
They say as well, and in my opinion this should be given greater importance, that the act confirms that the administration of the federal contract program as concerns employment equity is the responsibility of the Minister of Labour. The requirements of the contracts program must also comply with the law.
On this side, when we say the more private employers are used, the more flexibility, we should perhaps find a way of getting better results.
In short, there is a statutory requirement for the review of the act. As the government House leader said, the government has had consent from all sides to refer the bill to the standing committee on human resources.
I think that it is appropriate to have the bill referred to a committee, because after five years' of existence since the last review the government can expect a whole range of suggestions for improvements.
I think we will then have a chance of getting expertise from the various groups concerned. When the committee has completed its work, it could report to the House with specific suggestions that, in certain sectors might give the law some teeth to ensure better results in the future.
In other sectors, sections or parts of sections that are not relevant or that have failed to produce the desired effects and are not likely to help improve the situation could be repealed.
The entire labour market has changed considerably in the past five years. There is the whole question of telework, self-employed workers, the advent of the Internet and e-mail. The new work technology will have an impact on the Employment Equity Act, because increasingly work is done at home. People could be integrated where five years ago people did not think of their being integrated. Perhaps ways have to be found to permit this integration. I am thinking here of people with disabilities.
It is obvious that if people no longer have to travel, they can become more interested in working and can do their job more easily, with fewer physical constraints than if they had to travel to the workplace. Is this not something worth looking into? I think so.
Technological advances have an impact on employment equity. Aboriginals face a similar situation. In their case, society has evolved considerably. Efforts have been made to help them attain a higher level of education.
In Quebec, Mr. Chevrette's approach has become widespread and makes very significant recognition of first nations possible. It will be possible to achieve better results in future without necessarily having to uproot people from their communities. We can provide them with additional opportunities to get jobs and become a part of society.
I think that the fundamental purpose of legislation such as this is to enable people to join the workforce, but also to allow the public service, all employers in the federally regulated public and private sectors, to better reflect the society in which we live.
When whole segments of society are wrongly denied access to jobs, frustration is created and we deprive ourselves of a society which is as balanced as possible, which gives everyone an equal opportunity insofar as possible.
Let us hope that when it is studying the various proposals the committee will have all the necessary initiative to propose constructive changes and that somewhere in the years 2005-08 we will have an opportunity to evaluate its work, that we will see some interesting results, and that we will be satisfied with the review of the legislation.