Workers’ Environmental Rights in Canada report

July 28 2021

We hope that the framework for workers’ environmental rights serves as a tool for action on climate change and for a just transition to a sustainable economy.

Ottawa (28 July 2021) — The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) and the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) are releasing a report that explores the presence of, and potential for, workers’ environmental rights in Canada. The report looks at existing laws in Canada and identifies opportunities for advancing these rights.

This project was supported by the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW) project, based at York University.

Work and workers’ relationship to the environment

We know that workplaces can be a source of hazards facing workers. But they can also be the source of materials or activities that hurt the environment and/or contribute to climate change. 

The science on climate change is clear: we are facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions, and we need dramatic measures to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects. In this, we all have a role to play — including workers.

In this context, NUPGE and CELA conducted research to determine what tools exist, or could exist, for workers to protect themselves from environmental hazards at work, as well as to better understand, mitigate, and/or prevent potential negative impacts of their work on the environment.

A rights-based approach

The history of occupational health and safety (OHS) rights and laws in Canada demonstrates the value of a rights-based approach to worker protection. 

There is also a growing movement for a rights-based approach to environmental protection, also known as environmental rights. The right to a healthy environment has been increasingly recognized and advocated for around the world at international, national, and subnational levels.  

From both of these angles, the report explores the environmental rights of workers specifically. 

Identifying gaps

Compared to the important policy and legislative developments in OHS, workers’ responsibilities and rights to protect the environment, or to limit the damage of climate change, have received far less attention. There is a significant gap in the literature, as well as in law and policy. 

The patchwork of environmental protection legislation across the country does not sufficiently consider the rights of workers and their role as stewards with responsibilities to promote environmental justice for the communities affected by their work activities.

Our legal scan found that there are gaps in, and limitations to, existing laws in Canada. However, these gaps also signal opportunities to strengthen rights that promote sustainability and workers’ role in it.

A framework for workers’ environmental rights

The report goes on to propose a framework for workers’ environmental rights. The framework can be summarized as follows:

  1. Right to safe and healthy working conditions, including environmentally sustainable workplaces and work activities, and a duty of employers to prevent unsafe exposure to hazardous substances.
  2. Right to information (right to know) about the environmental and climate change impacts of their work, workplace activities, and production outputs.
  3. Right to participate in workplace decision-making where it may have environmental or climate change impacts.
  4. Right to advocate for effective standards of environmental protection at the workplace and in the broader public arena.
  5. Right to inform the public about potentially environmentally damaging workplace practices, or production outputs, without fear of discipline or dismissal (whistleblower protection).
  6. Right to refuse environmentally damaging work.

Moving forward

The paper identifies potential opportunities for recognizing environmental rights in the workplace.

Since its drafting, the long-awaited amendments of Canada’s premier environmental law — the Canadian Environmental Protection Act — were announced in April 2021, by way of Bill C-28. As this bill works its way through the Parliamentary process, there will be opportunities to advocate for changes that recognize the vulnerability of workers and require consideration of vulnerable populations. An analysis of the proposed amendments, and what they mean for vulnerable populations, can be found in this CELA blog.

In proposing a framework for workers’ environmental rights, and identifying these and other opportunities for getting these rights recognized, we hope to start a conversation with allies about how to advance workers’ environmental rights in Canada. 

We also hope that the framework for workers’ environmental rights serves as a tool for action on climate change and for a just transition to a sustainable economy.

Read the Executive Summary here
Read the full report here
Read the accompanying legislative chart here