President’s commentary: Still waiting after 60 years | National Union of Public and General Employees

President’s commentary: Still waiting after 60 years

(28 July 2009) - Why is Canada still refusing to ratify ILO Convention No. 98 – the right to form unions and bargain collectively? After 60 years, the federal government has run out of excuses. Even the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized this right. - James Clancy.

By James Clancy
National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)

As worldwide anxiety about the economic crisis and human rights worsens, so - it appears - does Canada’s international reputation.

In a recent commentary I noted that Canada shamefully remains one of only nine countries in the world that refuses to ratify the International Labour Organization's (ILO) Convention No. 29 on Forced Labour.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only shameful and egregious example of Canada’s refusal to recognize international human rights. Canada is also refusing to ratify another fundamental Convention of the ILO, Convention No. 98 – Right to Organize and to Collective Bargaining.  

Convention 98 isn’t a complicated or even contentious document. It simply recognizes the human right of all workers to form unions and bargain collectively. Yet, sixty years after the ILO adopted this Convention, Canada is one of only 23 countries in the world that still haven’t ratified it.

The Canadian government hasn’t provided an adequate explanation for its position and quite frankly our refusal to get on board with the rest of the world seems bizarre.

Bizarre behaviour

For starters, Canada played a major role in developing this Convention and enthusiastically voted in favour of its adoption at the ILO Conference in 1949. Isn’t it hypocritical for Canada to present itself as the friendly giant of human rights Conventions on the international stage while completely sidelining them at home?

Convention 98 has close to universal acceptance with 87% of all countries in the world (160 in total) ratifying it. Why does Canada choose to be part of a small, isolated group of countries that still need to be convinced of the importance of ratifying this Convention?

Our refusal to ratify this Convention seems even more bizarre given the fact that in June 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the right to form unions and bargain collectively is a constitutional right protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

Since this historic court ruling, lower courts in Canada have consistently reinforced these rights for several categories of workers:

The government of Nova Scotia and the government of Ontario (in one instance) have also seen the writing on the wall and changed legislation to allow previously excluded workers to form a union and bargain collectively. 

Download Forced Labour, Child Labour, Anti-Union - Canada's Shameful Secret - PDFIn November 2007 Nova Scotia amended its Civil Service Act to allow casual employees to join existing NSGEU civil service bargaining units. In October 2008, the Ontario government amended legislation granting part-time workers in community colleges their longstanding quest for the right to unionize Unfortunately at odds with this important change, is the governent’s irresponsible and unjustified decision to appeal the migrant farm workers court victory in Ontario.

Why wouldn’t the Canadian government want to ratify an international Convention which provides the same rights and freedoms that are protected by our Constitution according to the Supreme Court of Canada? 

Finally, Canada and the rest of the world is currently dealing with a severe economic recession. The middle class in Canada and in other developed countries is shrinking. Working families are finding it harder to make ends meet. Wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living. And the promise of a secure retirement is fading.

Helping the middle class

Most world leaders understand that adopting policies that strengthen the right to form a union and bargain collectively is an important part of growing the middle class and getting the economy back on a healthy long-term growth path.

Even the World Bank and the OECD acknowledge that the right to form unions and bargain collectively has a major positive impact on work and living conditions, as well as on the development and progress of economic and social systems.

Why doesn’t Prime Minister Harper want to do what’s right for working people, middle class families, and our economy?

It’s time our federal government saw the writing on the wall. Canada's reputation as a fair and just country that defends human rights and believes in an equitable and sustainable economy is suffering on the international stage. It’s time for them to show leadership and climb on board with the other 160 countries in the world that have ratified Convention 98.

We all have to work together and convince our federal government of the interest and urgency of ratifying this fundamental Convention. Please take 30 seconds and send an email to the federal Minister of Labour, the Honourable Rona Ambrose ( urging her to take immediate measures to have Canada ratify ILO Convention No. 98 during the year of its 60th anniversary.

ILO Convention No. 98 is one of eight ‘core’ conventions that the ILO has identified as the basis on which all other workers' rights can be built. The ILO considers these conventions necessary conditions for the improvement of individual and collective rights at work. Follow the link below to find out more about the eight core ILO conventions recognized as being fundamental to the rights of human beings at work.


James Clancy
National President


James Clancy is the national president of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 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

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