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Le statut d’emploi : Un élément constitutif de la condition sociale ?

Relations industrielles
Consortium Erudit
Publication Date
DOI: 10.7202/011539ar
  • Economics
  • Law


Throughout the industrialized world, spurred on by companies seeking more flexibility, employment status has multiplied. An increasing number of people work part-time, on call, in a term position, at home, for an employment agency, etc. In Québec, statistics show that non-standard employment represents 36% of all employment (Bernier, Jobin and Vallée, 2003b: 7). This phenomenon is characterized by significant differences in pay, especially as regards wages and access to benefits, between people who perform similar duties, within the same company, but who have different employment status.No labour law in Québec clearly establishes the right to equal pay. One must turn to the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to find a clear affirmation of such a principle (R.S.Q., c. C-12, s. 19). This right to equal pay must, however, be linked to one of the grounds of discrimination prohibited under section 10 of the Charter. The question which must be asked is the following: Is employment status a constituent element of social condition within the meaning of section 10 of the Charter? An analysis of the jurisprudential evolution of the notion of social condition reveals that general courts of law have adopted a strict interpretation of this notion, in a way assimilating social condition and social origin and limiting social condition to the objective elements issuing from condition and origin. The creation, in 1991, of the Québec Tribunal des droits de la personne (T.D.P.Q. – human rights tribunal) marked a profound change in this interpretation. In 1993, Gauthier proposed a new approach by which social condition is composed of objective and subjective elements (C.D.P.Q. v. Gauthier, [1994] R.J.Q. 253). The Tribunal maintained that a true understanding of the concept of social condition requires that the subjective elements be taken into account, which are composed of the prejudices and stereotypes held with respect to certain groups in society, and that are connected to the objective elements of a person’s social condition.In 1999, case involving C.D.P.Q. v. Sinatra (21 September 1999, Montreal 500-53-000102-986) marked another important step, especially in regards to the subject that interests us, because it dealt with the refusal to rent housing to a person with precarious employment. In this case, the Tribunal asserted that freelancers are subject to stereotypes which constitutes discrimination based on social condition. This decision allowed for the first time, almost 25 years after the coming into force of the Québec Charter, the appearance of a limited but explicit recognition of employment status as a constituent element of social condition.Although the interpretation put forward by the Québec Tribunal des droits de la personne is much broader and more liberal than the one given by general courts of law, it must however be acknowledged that in the labour sector, no revolution has taken place: Sinatra affected the labour sector subsidiarily because it was question of a refusal to rent housing on the basis of objective and subjective characteristics particular to freelancer status.In its Lignes directrices (guidelines) established in 1994, the Commission des droits de la personne (human rights commission) asserted that it accepts complaints “alleging discrimination based on the attribution of a certain social condition due to precarious employment status, if this precariousness is accompanied by poorly paid work and/or stereotyped as low-status [Unofficial translation]” (Ledoyen, 1994: 5). It also maintained that stereotypes associated with precarious employment are only linked to poorly paid, low-status employment (1994: 10).According to this interpretation of the notions of social condition and precarious employment, workers with precarious employment whose right to equal pay for work of equal value is not acknowledged must show that they are poorly paid to take advantage of sections 10 and 19 of the Charter. In the light of the Supreme Court’s guidance, we see this approach as being inexplicably strict. Considering the situation of people with precarious employment only from the angle of income is to disregard much of their reality, because the disadvantages and prejudices that these people are subjected to are also shown by their limited, or lack of, access to unionization, employment insurance, compensation for a work accident or a work-related illness, benefits like supplemental pension plans and group insurance (Bernier, Jobin and Vallée, 2003a), or even compensation for a road accident.Linking social condition and low income too closely is to infer that the right to equality without distinction or exclusion based on social condition is a right that depends on the economic situation of the complainants, instead of a conjunction of factors determining their place in society. Yet, this is not the case for the right to equality without distinction or exclusion based, for example, on a handicap, race or sexual orientation. How does one justify that the same should not be true for social condition? With such an approach, discrimination based on employment status becomes acceptable for certain categories of wage-earners, which in turn gives way to a certain “conditionality” of fundamental rights. Workers who are victims of discrimination based on employment status form a group for which no egalitarian analysis has yet been considered. There have been some openings here and there, especially in Sinatra, which recognized employment status as a constituent element of social condition. However, to bring about a change in the law, cases of discrimination based on employment status must be brought before tribunals. The Commission des droits de la personne must also believe in this discrimination and bring its interpretation of the notion of social condition into line with the real situation of people who have precarious employment, who are disadvantaged economically, socially and legally as understood by the Supreme Court.Solutions to the problem of discrimination based on employment status must go through both the Charter, the protector of fundamental rights in all spheres of society, and An Act respecting Labour Standards, which can, for its part, standardize employment practices in a much more refined manner than the Charter. On the one hand, An Act respecting Labour Standards, whose inadequacies as regards pay equity have become increasingly glaring, should be revised. On the other hand, the interpretation of the notion of social condition should become fairer, that is broad and liberal. This interpretation would take into account not only the income level of people with precarious employment, but also the economic, social and legal disadvantages they have, in comparison to the advantages granted to people with permanent full-time employment who do work of equal value.

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