Workplace Injustices


Christy Clark’s recent announcement of a minimum wage increase was long overdue and welcome. However, it only begins to address the injustices being perpetrated on thousands of vulnerable low wage and highly exploited workers throughout the province under the so-called “more flexible” employment standards system of the past decade.

The May 11th by-election in Vancouver-Point Grey is an opportunity for the 6 candidates to declare their commitment to end these injustices. It is also an opportunity for the electorate to consider which candidate is most likely to bring to the floor of the legislature the changes needed to make BC’s employment standards system a model of progressive worker and family friendly workplace legislation in line with the International Labour Organization’s Decent Work Agenda.

In the preamble to the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda it is declared that:

Work is central to people’s well-being. In addition to providing income, work can pave the way for broader social and economic advancement, strengthening individuals, their families and communities. Such progress, however, hinges on work that is decent. Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives.

Putting the Decent Work Agenda into practice is achieved through the implementation of the ILO’s four strategic objectives, with gender equality as a cross-cutting objective: Creating Jobs; Guaranteeing Rights at Work; Extending Social Protection; and Promoting Social Dialogue.

The “Decent Work” principle was recently adopted by Federal Labour Standards Review Commissioner Professor HarryArthurs in his 2006 report Fairness at Work, when he stated that:

Labour standards should ensure that no matter how limited his or her bargaining power, no worker in the federal jurisdiction is offered, accepts or works under conditions that Canadians would not regard as “decent.” No worker should therefore receive a wage that is insufficient to live on; be deprived of the payment of wages or benefits to which they are entitled; be subject to coercion, discrimination, indignity or unwarranted danger in the workplace; or be required to work so many hours that he or she is effectively denied a personal or civic life.

At the present time the BC employment standards system is far from meeting the requirements of the Decent Work Agenda. The list of injustices and abuses to vulnerable workers in BC is long and growing, as fewer workers receive the protection of unions, unscrupulous employers force workers to work as “independent contractors” to avoid statutory employment obligations, temporary migrant worker programs expand to effect downward wage pressure on labour markets, and workers generally have less power in their employment relationships.

Children in BC have the lowest level of employment protection in North America – surely a family policy if there ever was one. Children between the ages of 12 and 14 are being employed in all kinds of hazardous and unhealthy work places without the requirement for a government issued permit or the oversight of the Employment Standards Branch.

Farm workers, mostly immigrant and migrant workers, the essential people who work in our fields, orchards, ranches, nurseries, greenhouses and other agricultural operations to grow, cultivate, harvest, clean, sort, grade, pack, keep or slaughter the food we eat every day, are treated as second class workers, and denied the benefit of hourly wages at least equal to the general minimum wage. They are excluded from statutory holidays with pay, annual vacations with pay, and overtime pay for working long hours. And they are not assured access to sanitary toilet facilities, decent housing, and safe transportation to their work places.

Thousands of migrant workers recruited to work long hours at very low pay in temporary employment under virtual indentured slavery agreements between governments, are being denied the same rights and freedoms as Canadian workers, and are completely under the radar and without the oversight of active employment standards enforcement.  There are no minimum provincial standards in place to the address the unique abusive working and living conditions of this growing component of our labour force.

Some of the most egregious justices to vulnerable workers stem from the failing system of employment standards enforcement. The system depends on these vulnerable workers to come forward with complaints, while pro-active enforcement is virtually non-existent. Through introduction of a “self help” procedure nine years ago abused workers must complain first to their abusive employers before they can file a formal complaint with the Employment Standards Branch. If they do have the courage take this initial intimidating step with their employer before filing a formal complaint, they must do so within 6 months of the claimed violation, and invariably have to wait for 8 weeks or more before their complaint is processed. They are then subjected to pressure from Officers to settle for less than that what they are entitled to, and if they do not settle on adverse terms must endure delays in settlement that can last for years. This is a classic case of justice systematically delayed constituting justice systematically denied.

This article only touches on some of the most outstanding injustices that a failing employment standards system is enabling.

The candidates in the May 11th by-election need to be heard on these issues. And citizens in that riding should be asking on the doorstep for firm commitments to improve the health, welfare and economic wellbeing of working families in BC, and for the equal protection of all workers. Achieving this will require nothing less than a complete overhaul and modernization of Employment Standards so as implement the Decent Work Agenda for all.

David Fairey is a Labour Economist and interim Co-Chair of the recently formed “Employment Standards for the Next Decade Coalition”.

May 8, 2011