Time to Put the Human in Human Resources!

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In this time of crisis, as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, governments are trying to simultaneously cope with the situation and support their citizens. Most governments are being very supportive with generous financial support, but some are using this time to make some controversial decisions, such as the current Canadian Liberal government attempting to give themselves sweeping powers without democratic oversight—in the end, the Canadian federal democratic system determined that oversight will still be provided.

This is a time of great chaos for our modern society, but it can also be a time of great reflection on how we want to better our society for the future. In the media, one is hearing calls for improvements, such as more respect and greater compensation for our frontline workers, including—but not limited to—grocery store clerks, truck drivers, and personal support workers.

It has also been brought to our attention that we need to do more to improve the fundamental working and living conditions of our long-term care homes as well. The Quebec government have proposed an idea to redeploy education workers to work in long-term care facilities. To understand why the government can do this, we need to have a history lesson on the foundations that formed the employer and employee relationship in Canada, as we know it today.

To understand Canadian employment laws, you have to go back over 400 years to England, to the 1563 Statute of Artificers Act, which basically stated that if you refused to do or quit a job, you would go to jail. It was a very draconian concept, but at the time, this was seen as an efficient way to deal with poverty.

Then, in the 18th century, there was a development of what were called the master and servant laws, and these laws now act as the foundations of our current employer-employee relationship. Only a change in the name of these laws, and not in the legal relationship itself, has occurred; we have just replaced the word “master” with “employer” and “servant” with “employee.” The fundamental power structure supporting this contractual relationship, however, remains the same. All the power rests with the “master,” or employer, and the “servant,” or employee, must follow their demands. Even though we have other laws, like the Employment Standards Act and the Human Rights codes, the ultimate balance of power still rests with the employer.

This is what the Quebec government seem to be relying on, believing that they are the “master” (and they do have the legal right to be) over their employees (the teachers), who are their “servants.” The government then believe that they have the power to decree whatever work their employees should do. In a case like this, we are using contractual laws that are hundreds of years old to decide what our employees should be doing.

Even in a time of crisis, perhaps it is time to embrace a more egalitarian view of the employer-employee relationship. Perhaps it is time to put the word “human” back into “human resources,” and treat workers with the respect and dignity they deserve. Perhaps it is time to dismiss the outdated belief that workers are just “servants” to their employers.

Discussion Questions:

Click and read the following two references: here and here. Reflect and prepare to debate one of the following positions with a partner:

  1. It is time to change the concept of “master” and “servant” in relation to the employer-employee relationship.
  2. There is no need to change the concept of the “master” and “servant” relationship in an employer-employee relationship as other employment laws have already done so.