Islamophobic incidents need to be addressed at work: Report

Labour group makes several recommendations for employers, unions
By John Dujay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/08/2019
Toronto mosque
People gather at a mosque in Toronto on March 22 to show solidarity with the Christchurch victims. Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Osorio

On March 15, the world looked on in horror when a mosque and Islamic centre in Christchurch, N.Z., were attacked by a gunman. Fifty people lost their lives while 50 others were injured.

Once again, the spotlight was on Islamophobia and its horrible consequences.

While Canada may not have suffered as badly over the years when it comes to these attacks — aside from the 2017 mass murder of six worshippers at a Quebec City mosque — “it would be profoundly mistaken and dangerously complacent to think that these forces are not prevalent in Canada and growing,” according to a new report from the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

“The division and scapegoating represent a grave threat to working people and their organizations, which depend on inclusiveness, equity and solidarity for economic and social power,” said Islamophobia at Work: Challenges and Opportunities.

As a result, working people and unions must respond by engaging members, and educating and tackling workplace discrimination head-on.

“Although Canada’s unions have made great strides towards challenging racism and other forms of oppression, there is much more to unpack, unlearn, challenge, interrupt and disrupt,” said the CLC. “Unions must understand, confront, and interrupt racism and discrimination in our workplaces, our organizations and our society.”

Workplace issues

“The stigma that comes with people and their children being identified as a Muslim is a huge, huge problem,” said Hassan Yussuff, president of the CLC in Ottawa.

“Most communities are generally welcoming in the country. But there are places, of course, where people face very much an isolated reality of experiencing Islamophobia and discrimination, and not feeling that they have the kind of support that they think could help them deal with those challenges.”

One Canadian woman, for example, faced inappropriate behaviour from a supervisor, he said.

“He basically told her, in very coarse language, he didn’t care about her faith when she told him she had to go and pray, and how her faith was annoying other people in the workplace and making them feel uncomfortable,” said Yussuff.

“Rather than trying to recognize him, as a supervisor, having responsibility to ensure those things weren’t happening... he was just trying to make her more miserable than she was already feeling and not appreciating that he had some legal obligation to stop that kind of behaviour and not perpetuating it.”

The workplace is a microcosm of society, said Faisal Bhabha, associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto.

“We do know that anti-Muslim discrimination has been on the rise steadily over the last 15 years and incidents of discrimination spike at particular points in time, usually related to political developments,” he said.

“One of the really sad realities is whenever there’s been a violent attack against Muslims, there’s been a swell of support and solidarity being shown from the general population, who might not otherwise think about Muslims or care about Muslims.”

“But also — we see it happen every time without fail — (there) is a spike in hate attacks and discrimination against Muslims,” said Bhabha.

The CLC report cited a 2016 Environics Research study that found 35 per cent of negative incidents of prejudice due to religion over the previous five years took place at work, compared to 34 per cent in public spaces and 25 per cent in stores, banks and restaurants.

The report’s insights are not surprising, according to Michael Bach, founder and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) in Toronto.

“We have at least anecdotally known for some time that we’re facing a severe issue around Islamophobia in the workplace,” he said. “It is an important wake-up for a lot of us that we need to be paying more attention to this.”

Recommendations

The report makes several recommendations to trade unions, employers and government. For example, it encourages unions to “speak out, immediately, against any backlash or incidents of discrimination against Muslims in your community.”

As an example, after the Christchurch attack, George Floresco of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers said the union and its 50,000 members “condemn this act of terrorism and extend their support and compassion to the Muslim community in Christchurch. Further, we condemn in the strongest possible terms those that would promote Islamophobia and violence against immigrants and refugees.”

Similarly, Stephanie Smith, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, said they “will do everything in our power to defend your right to pray and gather and live free from violence in any form.”

Unions should also provide bystander training and tools to members so they can immediately speak out against discrimination, and educate members about the dangers represented by the Islamophobic far-right political movements, said the report.

The creation of workplace human rights committees is also recommended.

As for employers, the report makes 11 recommendations, including ensuring employees and management understand their obligations to Muslim employees under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Employers should also establish and publicly promote a commitment from leadership against Islamophobia in the workplace and society.

In an ideal world, it’s about having a zero-tolerance policy that’s acted upon, said Bach.

“I know a lot of organizations have zero-tolerance policies for various things, and I would just like to see action being taken where some people end up being shown the door. We all have a role to play in addressing bias and discrimination in the workplace and, far too often, we see a lot of lip service paid to the concept of zero tolerance.”

Education is the “obvious answer” said Bhabha, but he has sensed backlash against some training initiatives. “There’s a view amongst some of the workforce that this is all just mumbo jumbo that has to be endured rather than saying (these are) meaningful things that need to be learned and implemented,” he said.

The report also recommends name-blind recruitment practices to ensure there is no bias or discrimination against employees from diverse backgrounds, including Muslims.

But this obscures the real concern, said Bach.

“It doesn’t address the core issue. It doesn’t make the racism or Islamophobia go away. It means that the candidate gets through the interview process but they’re still going to face the same issues of discrimination when they get into the interview,” he said.

“The onus needs to be on employers to address the issue of bias in hiring by educating their hiring managers, by educating their talent-attraction people, to understand bias that exists in the hiring process, to understand our personal blind spots and to create systems where we are eliminating those at the opportunity for those things to exist.”

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