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Warning Shot From Washington : Labor Department effort leads to consent decree with area firm

After a dozen years of indifferent enforcement of civil rights laws by the federal government, there was heartening evidence last week of a change in attitude. The Labor Department indicated that it now means business.

Costa Mesa-based Canon Business Machines agreed to pay up to $633,000 to 30 blacks, a Latino and a white woman who were denied jobs for which investigators found they were qualified.

Canon, the subsidiary of a large Japanese company based in Tokyo, agreed to pay the fine to settle discrimination charges brought by the Labor Department, which investigates compliance with equal employment laws at all companies that do business with the federal government. The firm did not admit it discriminated but it did sign a formal consent decree agreeing to pay.

Investigators who routinely reviewed Canon’s hiring records reported that 1,732 people applied for jobs with the company in 1992 and that of the 100 African Americans among them not one was hired. The Labor Department said 30 clearly met job requirements.

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Those are appalling figures.

The Japanese have been criticized at times for discrimination against minorities in their country and for their skewed views of race relations in this country. Several years ago a Japanese Cabinet minister compared prostitutes in Tokyo to African Americans, saying the latter “ruin the atmosphere” when they move into white neighborhoods. Later, under heavy pressure, the official apologized.

The Labor Department commented that, overall, Japanese-owned firms in the United States had discriminated in hiring but no more than American businesses. The fine is a needed reminder to all companies of their responsibility.

The Reagan Administration had a poor record of enforcing laws on voting rights, fair employment and school desegregation. The Bush Administration had a mixed record at best. By contrast, the Labor Department settlement with Canon appears to signal that Washington plans aggressive enforcement of civil rights laws.

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