Occupational Health is a Racial Justice Issue

A position paper by OHC – March 2022

For a PDF version of this paper, please click here.

Occupational Health Centre

Occupational Health Centre (OHC) is a community health centre focused on workers’ health. We are a worker-centred health centre committed to ensuring that workers’ health is always our main priority. OHC seeks to address barriers experienced by marginalized workers in Manitoba and strives to better understand how factors such as disability, gender, class, sexual orientation, immigration status, and race intersect and impact workers’ experiences of discrimination and oppression. We take a health equity approach to the delivery of our services, understanding that equity aims to close the gaps in health outcomes by preferentially directing services to marginalized communities. At OHC we prioritize our services to marginalized communities and individuals in order to improve health outcomes across worker populations.

OHC was formed in 1983 by the labour movement in which white men most often hold leadership positions. These labour representatives serve as the large majority of OHC’s Board of Directors and currently all of these representatives are white. The position of Executive Director has been held by seven individuals since 1983, and all of them have been white. The staff of OHC are racially diverse, but the majority are white. OHC currently has no Black or Indigenous representatives at the Board, management, or staff levels. The Cross-Cultural Community Advisory Committee of OHC is a volunteer committee formed in 2000 composed of racialized community members who give advice and direction to OHC’s work with newcomer communities. This Committee and its work have been recognized by government, funders, and community as a successful model for working effectively with racialized communities. However, the Cross-Cultural Community Advisory Committee holds no formal decision-making role within the organization.

OHC is located on Treaty No. 1 Territory, the traditional lands of the Anishinaabeg (Ojibway), Ininew (Cree), Oji-Cree, Dene, and Dakota, and is the birthplace and homeland of the Métis Nation. As settlers on these lands, we understand that it is our responsibility to identify and dismantle the structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy and racism that result in past and current colonial violence against Indigenous peoples.


Occupational health, as defined jointly by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1950 and revised in 1995 reads:

“Occupational health should aim at: the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental and social well-being of workers in all occupations; the prevention amongst workers of departures from health caused by their working conditions; the protection of workers in their employment from risks resulting from factors adverse to health; the placing and maintenance of the worker in an occupational environment adapted to their physiological and psychological capabilities…”

Occupational health and safety, and other working conditions are a key social determinant of health — the non-medical factors related to an individual’s place in society that influence health outcomes. According to the World Health Organization “these circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power, and resources at global, national and local levels.”[1] Research shows that social determinants can be more important than health care or lifestyle choices in influencing health.[2] These social circumstances are responsible for health inequities among different groups of people based on social and economic class, gender, and ethnicity/race.

Racism is another key social determinant of health. Racism interacts with occupational health and safety and creates hazards specific to people who are Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC).

Racism impacts workers’ health directly and indirectly. Racism results in higher levels of unemployment, precarious employment, and low-wage work which directly impacts the ability of workers to meet their basic needs. Over-representation of workers of colour in difficult and dangerous work leads to the injuries and illnesses associated with this type of work. These jobs often lack employment benefits, such as paid sick days. The impact of experiences of racism throughout a lifetime can lead to chronic stress and trauma and negatively affect both mental and physical health.[3]

The Different Levels of Racism

Individual racism: assumptions, beliefs or behaviours that support and reinforce racial inequality

Organizational racism: unfair policies and discriminatory practices – both formal rules and informal norms – of particular organizations, such as workplaces, that routinely produce inequitable outcomes for people of colour and advantages for white people.

Institutional/Structural/Systemic racism: racial bias within institutions and across society. This is a result of the cumulative and intersecting effects of factors such as the history, culture, ideology, and practices of institutions and policies that systematically privilege white people and disadvantage People of Colour. For example, the federal government programs that support hiring of migrant workers across Canada, the vast majority of whom are racialized people, and then only provide them with temporary immigration status and few protections to perform demanding and unsafe jobs with low pay is systemic racism.

At the Intersection of Occupational Health and Racism

Indigenous peoples in Canada face higher rates of unemployment due to discrimination and racism in hiring and employment practices of workplaces. The long history of colonization has resulted in intergenerational trauma, as well as lower literacy levels and education for Indigenous people, and directly affects their employment outcomes.

Indigenous people are more likely to be employed in sectors with jobs that are lower income, lower skilled, and more vulnerable to economic downturns, and many carry a greater risk of injury. Indigenous women are less likely to be employed and are more likely to work part-time than Indigenous men. The construction industry is the most common employer for Indigenous men. Indigenous workers are considerably less likely to be employed all year and are also more likely to hold more than one job.[4] According to the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, “Employment instability can drive individuals to social assistance, which then becomes the context for low income, stress, poor nutrition and many other factors linked to poor health outcomes.”[5]

Racialized non-Indigenous workers (including racialized immigrants), represent approximately one-fifth (22%) of Canada’s workforce and are more likely to be working or seeking work than non-racialized persons (Statistics Canada, 2017).[6] Yet they are also:

  • More likely to be unemployed (9.2%) than non-racialized persons (7.3%)
  • Disproportionately employed in the lowest-paying sectors, such as in accommodation and food services
  • Less likely to be found in management
  • Paid less than their non-racialized counterparts across all occupational groups[7]

Recent female immigrants (living in Canada for five years or less) are three times more likely to obtain paid part-time work and two-and-a-half times more likely to obtain temporary work than non-immigrant women. Black women are overrepresented in the “gig economy”, precarious employment and long-term entry level jobs.[8]

Racialized workers are less likely to work in unionized workplaces which provide workers with important protections and benefits. Racialized recent immigrants obtain unionized jobs at a slower rate than do white recent immigrants. Unionization has less of an effect on wages for racialized recent immigrants than for white recent immigrants.[9]

In Manitoba, large numbers of racialized workers are employed in the food processing industry which employs thousands of workers. Many are migrant workers. Workers in the meat and poultry industry suffer high rates of many types of injuries and illnesses, most often musculoskeletal disorders due to the repetitive motions involved with processing meat. In this industry workers are pressured to work as fast as possible to process the largest volume possible. Long hours with repetitive tasks lead to high rates of injury. Due to the fear of losing their jobs, many migrant and newcomer workers do not report workplace injuries.

The vast majority of migrant workers with temporary status are racialized workers. They have precarious immigration status and are dependent on their employers to remain in Canada. This power imbalance puts them at an extreme disadvantage in terms of using the health and safety or employment standards rights available to them. Many protections, services, and supports available to citizens and permanent residents are simply not available to temporary workers. Migrant workers with work permits of less than one year are not eligible for provincial health care coverage. Migrant workers experience mental health concerns caused by the social exclusion from the broader community. Workers report experiences of racism from local communities, loneliness, depression, and anxiety related to family separation and their temporary status. This results in the fear to speak up about working conditions as it may lead to deportation.[10]

In addition to being employed in jobs with higher rates of injuries, within the workplace Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) workers experience the following occupational health hazards:

  • Discrimination in hiring
  • Lack of recognition for previous education, work experience, and other credentials and requirements for Canadian work experience
  • Lower pay
  • Lack of recognition for achievements and access to opportunities for career advancement
  • Job instability
  • Harassment and discrimination
  • Violence
  • Stress

These systemic injustices and associated occupational health hazards are not just historical. During the COVID-19 pandemic, BIPOC workers have also been overwhelmingly and disproportionately affected by exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19. Of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Manitoba as of May 15, 2021, 61% are BIPOC, yet only 35% of people in Manitoba belong to a BIPOC group.[11]

To address the occupational health of BIPOC workers, it is critical to identify and work against the racism that produces the particular hazards and inequities BIPOC workers face in the workplace.

Key Recommendations

The Occupational Health Centre has both an opportunity and a responsibility to respond to the recent calls for justice and equity from BIPOC workers and communities stemming from movements such as Black Lives Matter, a focus on anti-Asian racism during the pandemic, and the legacy of genocide against Indigenous children and communities imposed by settler colonialism. To advance racial justice, occupational health, and health equity among BIPOC workers, OHC should act on the following recommendations:


  • Prioritize programs and allocate resources to deal with the occupational health concerns of BIPOC workers.
  • Build capacity of all members of the organization to apply and incorporate an anti-racist and intersectional lens to all programming and services.
  • Ensure robust representation of BIPOC community members in all levels of the organization, including staff, management, and Board positions. Goals should be set, and progress reported on annually at the organization’s Annual General Meeting.
  • Build on and strengthen the role of the existing Cross Cultural Community Advisory Committee and ensure stronger participation in the organization to improve inclusion and equity within the organization.
  • Conduct an Internal Racial Equity Audit to identify and remedy practices of organizational racism. Ensure that BIPOC members of the organization are engaged in a safe and meaningful way. Commit to develop and implement an action plan to address and improve the issues identified in the Internal Racial Equity Audit.
  • Develop and implement an Anti-Racism Policy.
  • Recruitment and hiring practices should ensure that new people brought into the organization have a solid understanding and commitment to anti-racism.
  • Reach out and engage with diverse racialized and Indigenous communities to learn and better meet the occupational health needs of workers from these communities.
  • Work collaboratively with Indigenous people and organizations to share resources, build capacity, and offer support in the area of occupational health. Support, form partnerships, and share resources with organizations led by BIPOC workers and communities and amplify and promote their work.


  • Engage in advocacy with membership-based networks and with policy makers to identify, confront and dismantle settler colonialism, white supremacy, and all forms of structural racism.
  • Participate in and support grassroots and community anti-racism campaigns.
  • Support the call for permanent immigration status for all migrant and undocumented workers.
  • Support the expansion of provincial health care coverage to migrant, undocumented and international student workers.
  • Continually and concretely support the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the 231 Calls for Justice of the Final Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirit People.


Thank you to Shereen Denetto, Louis Ifill, and Johsa Manzanilla for reviewing early drafts of this position paper and offering invaluable comments and suggestions based on their extensive knowledge and experience.

[1] World Health Organization, “Taking Action of the social determinants of health” https://www.who.int/westernpacific/activities/taking-action-on-the-social-determinants-of-health

[2] World Health Organization “Social determinants of health” https://www.who.int/health-topics/social-determinants-of-health#tab=tab_1

[3] Yin Paradies, Jehonathan Ben, Nida Denson, Amanuel Elias, Naomi Priest, Alex Pieterse, Arpana Gupta, Margaret Kelaher, Gilbert Gee Racism as a Determinant of Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

PLoS One. 2015; 10(9): e0138511. Published online 2015 Sep 23. 

[4] Statistics Canada. Aboriginal Peoples Survey: Employment of First Nations men and women living off reserve, 2019. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-653-x/89-653-x2019004-eng.htm

[5] National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health. Employment as a Social Determinant of First Nations, Inuit and Metis Health 2017. https://www.ccnsa-nccah.ca/docs/determinants/FS-Employment-SDOH-2017-EN.pdf

[6] Statistics Canada, “Labour Force Status (8), Visible Minority (15), Immigrant Status and Period of Immigration (11), Highest Certificate, Diploma or Degree (7), Age (13A) and Sex (3) for the Population Aged 15 Years and Over in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2016 Census – 25% Sample Data,” Data Tables, 2016 Census (2019).

[7] Ng, Eddy S. Dr., Gagnon, Suzanne Dr. Employment Gaps and Underemployment for Racialized Groups and Immigrants in Canada, 2020 https://fsc-ccf.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/EmploymentGaps-Immigrants-PPF-JAN2020-EN.pdf

[8] Katshunga, J., Massaquoi, N., Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit, City of Toronto, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, & Wallance, J. (2020). Black women in Canada. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from https://behindthenumbers.ca/shorthand/black-women-in-canada/

[9]Verma, A., Reitz, J.G., Banerjee, R. Unionization and Income Growth of Racial Minority Immigrants in Canada: A Longitudinal Study, International Migration Review,First Published July 19, 2018 

[10] Haley, E. Caxaj, C. George, G. & Hennebry, J., Martell, E., & McLaughlin, J. (2020, May). Migrant farmworkers face heightened vulnerabilities during COVID-19. Journal of Agriculture Food Systems and Community Development. 9, 1, 1-5. https://doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2020.093.016

Caxai, S. & Diaz, L.. Migrant workers’ (non)belonging in rural British Columbia, Canada: storied experiences of Marginal Living International Journal of Migration, Health and Social Care. 15 June 2018

[11] Province of Manitoba. COVID-19 Case Data and Racial/Ethnic/Indigenous Identity. Technical Briefing

May 26, 2021 https://www.gov.mb.ca/asset_library/en/covidvaccine/vaccine-briefing-05262021.pdf