It’s time for Canada to put into practice our international commitments to labour rights.
By James Clancy
National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)
Ottawa (30 Aug. 2010) - This summer Canada ratified its first International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention in over a decade.
Lisa Raitt, the federal minister of labour, announced ratification of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), 2006 at the 99th Session of the ILO conference in Geneva this June.
The Convention provides rights and protection at work for the world's more than 1.2 million seafarers. Ratification of the Convention allows inspection of foreign ships arriving in Canadian ports to determine conformity with modern labour standards already being applied on Canadian vessels.
The ratification of MLC should not be seen as a great surprise, since close to half of all ILO Conventions ratified by Canada are aimed at protecting workers who are not employed in Canada.
Unfortunately our federal government does not seem to have the same enthusiasm for protecting the rights of workers in Canada, especially migrant workers who come to Canada for temporary employment.
Let’s face it, Canada’s record with respect to ratification of ILO Conventions to establish the rights of Canadian workers is dismal - an international embarrassment. Canada has only ratified 28 of the ILO’s 188 international Conventions. Of those 28 ratifications over 91 years of ILO membership, 11 involve maritime labour Conventions.
Excluding the MLC and its predecessor, the Merchant Shipping (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1976 (No.147), Canada has only ratified three ILO conventions in the last 45 years (see List of Ratifications of International Labour Conventions – Canada). It’s no coincidence that this dismal ratification record covers a period where we have witnessed over two hundred pieces of labour law passed in Canada that have restricted, denied or eliminated workers’ rights.
Our federal government can, and must, do more to put into practice its international commitments to establish, protect and promote workers’ rights in Canada. If Ottawa showed the same level of enthusiasm for protecting and promoting labour rights as it does for the promotion of corporate rights through international trade agreements, it would go a long way in restoring Canada’s international reputation in the world community.
Leading up to this Labour Day, NUPGE has compiled a list of five key ILO Conventions that the federal government could easily, and should, ratify between now and Labour Day 2011. Here they are:
- Convention No. 29 – Forced Labour was adopted by the ILO in 1930. It is one of eight ‘fundamental’ conventions identified by the ILO as a necessary condition for the improvement of individual and collective rights at work. This Convention is not a controversial document; it simply prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labour - necessary conditions for the improvement of individual and collective rights at work.
Canada is only one of eight countries in the world left to ratify this convention. This year marks the Convention’s 80th anniversary and the ILO has placed a major push on Canada and the other seven countries to ratify Convention No. 29, making it the first universally ratified ILO convention. There is no credible excuse for Canada not to ratify ILO Convention No. 29 on Forced Labour.
- Convention No. 98 – Right to Organize and to Collective Bargaining is another of the ILO’s eight ‘fundamental Conventions that Canada has not ratified. It is not a complicated or even contentious document. It simply recognizes the human right of all workers to form unions and bargain collectively. Yet, 60 years after the ILO adopted this Convention, Canada remains one of only 13 countries in the world that still have not ratified it.
Our refusal to get on board with the rest of the world seems 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.
- Convention No. 138 – Minimum Age is the third other ILO ‘fundamental’ Convention Canada has not ratified. It sets the general minimum age for employment or work at not less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, not less than 15 years (13 years of age for light work ).
Canada is one of only 27 countries in the world that have not ratified Convention No. 138.
- Convention No. 143 – Migrant Workers adopted in 1975 requires member States to guarantee equality of treatment with regard to working conditions for all migrant workers as well as equality of opportunity with regard to access to employment, trade union rights and individual and collective freedoms.
Migrant workers are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian workforce; we now have up to 300,000 foreign workers coming to Canada each year for temporary employment. These workers are denied access to many labour and employment rights and are by far the most exploited group of workers in our country.
All workers in Canada, regardless of their origins or status, must be entitled to the same workplace rights. Ratification of ILO Convention No. 143 would make it clear that a worker’s immigration status is never a subject of questioning when it comes to protecting and promoting his or her rights as a worker in Canada.
- Convention No. 144 – Tripartite Consultation concerns one of the founding principles behind the ILO. The “tripartite system” within the ILO enables representatives of workers and employers to participate on an equal footing with governments in all discussions around the development, implementation and enforcement of ILO international standards. Convention No. 144, adopted in 1976, simply requires member States to establish and follow procedures for effective consultations with unions and employers on ILO matters. Accordingly, the ILO has designated the ratification and implementation of Convention No. 144 as a priority.
It has already been ratified by 125 of the ILO’s member States, including the U.S., which has one of the lowest ILO Convention ratification rates in the world. For Canada, Convention 144 is one of the easiest to ratify as it does not require the approval of provincial and territorial governments. The labour movement and employer organizations, the governments ‘social partners’ on ILO matters, have already given formal approval for its ratification.
The ratification of these five ILO Conventions is critical to advancing labour rights in Canada.
The ministry of labour has been telling us for several years that it has been holding discussions about ratification of these five key ILO Conventions with provincial and territorial counterparts. It insists that a timetable for ratification has been established. However, the federal government refuses to make public those discussions and it is certainly not prepared to reveal a timetable for ratification.
The time for secret, closed-door discussions is up. Federal consultations regarding ratification must be more transparent and encompass the ILO’s spirit of social dialogue and tripartism with worker and employer organizations.
It’s time for the Canadian government to act - with or without the support of all provincial / territorial governments.
Imagine being able to celebrate the ratification of five key ILO Conventions by Labour Day 2011 - one year from now. It can be done but it will take the effort and commitment of all union activists and our allies to convince all governments in Canada the importance of putting into practice our international commitments to protect, promote and enhance workers’ rights here in Canada.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is 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