A major federal department has temporarily banned the hiring of able-bodied white men in an unusual move critics say could spark a backlash against the very disadvantaged groups it is meant to help.
Managers in the Public Works department must hire only visible minorities, women, aboriginals and the disabled, except with written permission from their superiors, David Marshall, the deputy minister, ordered in an e-mail circulated yesterday.
The policy, designed to address shortfalls in the department’s employment-equity goals, will last at least until the end of next March and be reviewed then, the memo said.
“As executives and managers, our role includes ensuring that the public service is representative,” Mr. Marshall said in the memo. “This involves providing direction and leadership by example, and demonstrating a firm commitment to an inclusive workplace.”
Pierre Teotonio, a department spokesman, said last night the order was prompted in part by a precipitous drop in the number of employees hired from the designated groups this year. The proportion of female, disabled, aboriginal and non-white new hires fell from one in eight this March to only one in 20 by September, he said. The federal benchmark just for the hiring of visible minorities is one in five.
Still, a veteran labour lawyer said yesterday he had never heard of an edict actually barring the recruitment of large numbers of people. And even a federal civil service union that strongly supports employment equity questioned the wisdom of the policy.
“I think it’s creating a possible backlash against equity groups and then it’s not helping these people to get into government,” said Nycole Turmel, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
“It’s even creating more frustration or anger from the workforce as well as from the population . . . I am quite sure the people they hire will be competent and good employees, but that is not the point here. They will be seen as targets, and then people will question their hiring, and I don’t think it will help them.”
She also charged that many of those hired over the next few months may well be laid off once the department reaches its targets by the end of the fiscal year in March.
Ms. Turmel said a more effective strategy would be simply to encourage managers to consider members of the designated groups, and provide help to those people to find work in the federal government.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms does allow some discrimination by government to aid groups it identifies as being disadvantaged, said Robb Macpherson, a labour lawyer with the firm McCarthy Tetrault.
However, that usually means implementing equity programs that promote the hiring of qualified people from those groups. The Public Works order appears to take the idea a step further, he said. “They are in effect cutting off a significant portion of the workforce from these opportunities,” Mr. Macpherson said. “It sounds like a pretty extreme measure that they’re contemplating.”
Federal statistics for 2003-04 show that the representation of women, aboriginal people and the disabled in the government was actually greater than in the Canadian workforce as a whole. But the percentage of visible minorities—7.8%—was less than the 10.4% in the overall workforce.
Mr. Teotonio said the move was taken as part of the department’s efforts under the six-year-old “Embracing Change” program, designed to bring more members of visible minorities into the federal government.
The percentage of visible minorities and the three other designated groups hired by Public Works over the past year dropped in part because there was relatively little recruitment of any kind, he said.
“All persons recruited externally must be from designated groups (persons who are visible minorities, aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and women), except for cases having received ADM/CEO written approval,” the memo said.
“This measure will be in force until March 31, 2006, at which time we will re-assess our progress.”