"We mustn't be lulled into thinking that these changes fix all of the serious problems facing workers today. There is still much work to do in both provinces, and across the country, before we can claim that workers’ rights are protected and respected as they should be." — Larry Brown, NUPGE President
Ottawa (31 May 2017) — Spring 2017 could prove to be the time of an important shift in Canadian labour laws, as 2 provinces, Ontario and Alberta, move forward with revamping decades-old labour legislation.
Modernizing labour laws, a long time in coming
Each province has included some strong provisions that support and protect workers' rights.
On May 24, the Alberta government introduced the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act, Bill 17. The 124-page bill has to move through the legislative process before being brought into law.
In Ontario, the Ministry of Labour received the recommendations from the Changing Workplaces Review on May 23 and, on May 30, announced that it was moving forward with legislation to implement several recommendations from the review.
Alberta reduces employer's ability to interfere with unionization
Alberta’s legislation mostly focuses on assisting non-unionized workers by expanding leave entitlements, introducing smaller deductions, overtime and holiday pay to benefit these workers. Unionized workers can be positive with card check being reintroduced, albeit in a hybrid form that deems certification votes unnecessary if over 65 per cent of workers have signed cards supporting unionization.
The minimum wage for workers in Alberta will be raised to $15 per hour starting in October 2018.
First contract arbitration has also been introduced: a sensible provision that can mitigate some of the conflict typical when employers and newly organized workers try and negotiate their first unionized contracts.
Raising the minimum age of work in Alberta from 12 to 13 is one of those provisions that can be applauded, but also note that this just brings Alberta into compliance with the International Labour Organizations 1973 Convention.
Ontario agrees to raise minimum wage to $15
For Ontario, until legislation is introduced, it is unclear how far the government will go in implementing the rather disappointing recommendations from the 2 Special Advisors. The government has, however, announced that it is moving toward a $15 minimum wage, a move strongly advocated for by labour and allies, but a recommendation that was not included in the Changing Workplaces Review.
"If the government is willing to go further than the Review committee on this issue of the minimum wage, perhaps labour still has room to push for stronger recommendations," says Larry Brown, President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE).
Other announced Ontario changes include
- Equal pay would be mandated for part-time workers doing the same job as a full-time workers.
- After 5 years with the same employer, the minimum vacation entitlement for workers would rise to 3 weeks per year.
- Employers would be required to pay a worker 3 hours of wages if the employer cancels a shift with less than 48 hours' notice, or if workers who are "on-call" are not called in.
- All workers would be given 10 personal emergency leave days a year, and a minimum of 2 of those days must be paid. Currently, only employees of large companies are entitled to this.
Wynne also announced the government would change the rules for creating a union, including the extension of card-based certification to temporary workers, building services workers and community care workers.
More work ahead to protect and enhance workers' rights
"Overall, after decades of neglect, these changes can be viewed as cautious, but positive, steps forward," said Brown. "And we must acknowledge the role our provincial Components — Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA/NUPGE), and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE) — for their tireless work in making these changes a reality."
"But it's not far from our minds that changes to the Employment Standards Act aren't worth a damn if there isn't increased enforcement of the law. More enforcement officers, with proper resources, are needed to ensure that employers follow the new rules, as well as the existing ones. We would hope that all employers accept these changes, but too often we hear that employers continue to skirt the law when it comes to how they treat workers."
Many had hoped these governments would make positive changes in areas such as anti-scab legislation, sectoral bargaining, removing all exemptions to labour standards and protections etc. Labour lobbied hard for changes that would see shifts schedules available 2 weeks in advance, access to paid vacation to start sooner, and better paid time off for workers experiencing domestic violence. But, reactionary lobby groups worked hard to pressure both these governments to stop short of fully embracing their role of protecting workers rights and upholding the constitutional provisions around freedom of association.
"We mustn't be lulled into thinking that these changes fix all of the serious problems facing workers today," said Brown. "There is still much work to do in both provinces, and across the country, before we can claim that workers’ rights are protected and respected as they should be."
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 370,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. ~ NUPGE