Black History Month: We need to talk about Black labour | Rebecca Amoah

By Rebecca Amoah

Law360 Canada (February 7, 2022, 11:26 AM EST) --
Rebecca Amoah
Rebecca Amoah

Black histories and legacies are not defined by our peoples’ enslavement. During February, we celebrate our vibrant lived experiences — complete with love, joy, and community. But white people cannot amplify these experiences without acknowledging how our histories are bound up with our labour, and how those histories were shaped by colonialism and white supremacy. Employers have a responsibility to recognize how white power structures have historically exploited Black labour and to create more liberating working conditions for Black people.

On the Indigenous territory that became what we now call Canada, British and French colonial agents enslaved more than 4,000 people of African descent, who were viewed as racially subordinate to white people, from 1629 to 1834. In 1781, Saint John's Island (now Prince Edward Island) was the only colony where legislation governed enslavement. Several years later, the Upper Canada legislature introduced certain limitations on enslaving Black people. By 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act had become law, which abolished the practice across the British Empire. However, emancipation only applied to enslaved children under age six. All enslaved people above age six remained chattel — their master’s property.

In the British and French colonies, indentured servitude was legalized by the common law, rather than by legislation. Many slaveholders agreed to free enslaved people on the condition that they work as indentured servants for a given time. For example, Dimbo Suckles, a Black person who was enslaved on Prince Edward Island, was only freed by his former master upon completing seven years of indentured servitude. Freedom of contract legalized slavery by another name that long survived the promise of freedom.

That promise, believed to restore ownership over Black people’s labour and freedom of choice, did not interrupt our subordination to whiteness. Once freed from enslavement and indentured servitude, employment opportunities available to Black people were limited. We were generally relegated to working as poorly compensated domestic, agricultural, industrial, and general labourers. We were barred from joining trade unions and from accessing the rights and protections that union membership brought white workers. We were turned away by white employers, who were free to choose not to hire or promote Black people based on our race.

These discriminatory practices were not prohibited by the Canadian state until 1953 — more than one hundred years after abolition — when the Fair Employment Practices Act was enacted. By this time, Ontario and Saskatchewan had already implemented similar legislation. Manitoba, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Quebec soon followed. Today, federal and provincial human rights legislation prevents employers from discriminating against candidates and employees based on their race. But have legal protections against discrimination brought Black people greater dignity? Or greater ownership over our labour? Statistics say otherwise.

Black Canadians are disproportionately unemployed and underemployed, despite our high labour market participation rates. We earn less income and occupy fewer management positions than white Canadians. A 2017 University of Toronto study found that Black job seekers who “whitened” their resumés were 2.5 times more likely to receive an interview.  A 2019 global study concluded that Canada’s hiring processes were the third most discriminatory among the countries surveyed. That same year, Catalyst reported that 66 per cent of the Black men and 69 per cent of the Black women they interviewed about being “on guard” seriously considered resigning due to their constantly preparing for and anticipating racial discrimination at work.

Since 2020, we have seen a renewed commitment to creating diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces, as a response to police brutality and anti-Black racism. While only loosely related to counteracting state violence, improving Black employment outcomes will improve Black lives.

Employers should view February as an opportunity to consider:

  1. How your organization upholds white supremacy. Are your executives, senior professionals and partners predominantly white? Does your organization serve clients whose business perpetuates Black peoples’ oppression? Do your performance review processes screen for reviewer biases?
  2. How your organization compensates Black people for our labour. Are your Black employees paid equal to what your white employees are paid for comparable work? Are your bonuses calculated equitably and transparently? Do you pay your Black contractors and consultants generously and commensurate with their experience?
  3. Whether your workplace policies value Black employees’ labour. Do you provide adequate and appropriate vacation time and pay? Do you support and encourage your employees to take vacation time? Do you provide leaves that are responsive to Black lived experiences, including wellness and community bereavement leaves?

Use these considerations to strategize how to improve Black employment outcomes and your Black employees’ lives. Start by collecting and analyzing existing data. You may examine your recruitment processes to identify any barriers to entry into your workforce. Or you may administer voluntary, qualitative employee surveys and interviews. Depending on your organization, you may conduct a pay or employment equity analysis to determine where your Black employees are over and underrepresented. Retaining an external consultant may be necessary to support you with your data collection program. The results you obtain will help you determine how best to allocate your hiring, retention and promotion resources.

Organizations that are committed to changing white leadership dynamics by hiring Black executives may need to relinquish and redistribute some institutional power. Internally, that may mean establishing programs promoting Black employees’ development. Externally, that may mean expanding your search beyond white recruitment networks to attract Black talent.

An employer's organizational strategy should be complemented by continued anti-racism education that exceeds bias awareness and promotes white employees’ critical introspection.

Every year, Black History Month presents employers with a choice — change or remain the same. Many choose to remain the same. This year, choose to change. Choose to start now. 

Rebecca Amoah is a litigation associate at Torys LLP in Toronto. Her approach to resolving disputes is rooted in equity and inclusion, and she incorporates marginalized perspectives into developing effective strategies for clients.

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