Labour + Industry

Help for Students, Equal Pay and Reducing Harassment at Work

A Q&A with federal Employment and Labour Minister Patty Hajdu.

By Katie Hyslop 23 Feb 2018 |

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

This isn’t your parents’ job market.

The B.C. government is predicting 80 per cent of jobs will soon require some post-secondary training. And training means spending money. As of 2013, the most recent number available, B.C. students finishing a four-year program had an average $34,800 debt.

The jobs they train for are increasingly insecure. A 2017 study predicts 45 per cent of Canadian workers will be working on contract or on-demand in just two years.

Thanks to the #MeToo and pay equity movements, we know women and trans people will face an uphill battle in being treated and compensated fairly at work.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised action on these fronts, which all fall onto the shoulders of Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Patty Hajdu.

The Tyee caught up with Hajdu to talk about her department’s moves on student debt, specifically a top-up for students returning to school after a decade, and new legislation protecting the one million workers in federally regulated workplaces from harassment, health and safety issues and disparity in pay.

The Tyee: Are these top-up grants new?

Patty Hajdu: The Skills Boost Grant was announced in December, but they take effect this ... 2018/19 school year.

The idea behind this is it’s an additional top-up of $1,600 per school year to the Canada Student Grant for full-time students who are either working or they’re unemployed and want to pursue post-secondary education that’s going to help them pursue a better job or move on in their careers.

There are other changes, too, and one is that the students’ eligibility for their grants would be based on the current year’s income rather than the previous year’s income. Often times people who have experienced a layoff or a loss in earnings indicate their grant eligibility didn’t actually reflect their true earnings, because their previous year’s earnings would be much higher than their current year’s earnings.

Then the other is increased EI [Employment Insurance] flexibility for people who could access training and keep their EI benefits, so there wasn’t that risking of losing your EI benefits because you’re not actively searching for a job or taking the first job that comes your way.

The Skills Boost Grant is spread out in $200 monthly payments over eight months. What is that supposed to help students pay for?

It’s an additional top up, on top of whatever else they might be eligible for. We did increase grants that are available for students coming from lower-middle class incomes. It is an acknowledgement that as you get older, there are additional expenses in your life that may be preventing a person from accessing post-secondary.

A number of the provinces have eliminated interest on student loans. Has the federal government considered going in that direction as well?

At this point we don’t have plans to do this. But I can tell you that one of the things we did is change the threshold of eligibility to start to repay your loan: until you’re earning $25,000 a year, we can postpone payments.

What is the justification for continuing to charge interest on student loans?

Interest rates are widely used across the government of Canada. But from our perspective, the affordability comes from trying to make sure that people have to pay back less, and access more in grants.

The government is writing off $200 million in student debt this year. How often does that happen?

Every year there is a certain amount of loans that aren’t collectable. That $200 million represents about one per cent of the total loans that are dispensed each year. It’s actually a fairly low default rate.

Tyee note: Ministry data shows the amount written off in the last five years has ranged from $312 million in 2012/13 to $175 million in 2015/16.

When can we expect to see anti-harassment legislation?

The legislation has already been through its second reading, it’s at committee right now. What we’re hoping is that they’ll be done their study by the end of March, and it will come to the house for the third reading, and then off to the Senate it will go. Then it becomes a little bit of an out-of-our-hands situation, where the Senate decides the speed at which they’ll process the legislation.

But my indication from some of the senators that we’ve spoken to is there is a great degree of interest to see this move very quickly. So we’re hopeful with a cooperative approach, and with a Senate that’s also interested in the legislation, that we might be able to see something by the end of June.

Would it cover workers in a federal workplace who work for other employers? Like contracted cleaning staff.

The legislation would cover all Parliamentary staff. If the person is working for another company, it would not cover that situation. Though that person could use their own processes through their own company.

Can we expect to see legislation that covers all federal employees at some point?

Oh, this legislation does. It’s all federally regulated employees. The historic part of this legislation is that the Parliamentary staff are for the very first time protected under the Canada Labour Code.

It also protects them from a health and safety perspective. So this protects political staffers from harassment and sexual violence, but it also brings them under part two of the labour code.

This legislation is divided into three chunks: the first is a very strong focus on prevention. Each federally regulated employer will be compelled through legislation to have a policy on harassment, all the way up to workplace violence. To provide the training and resources available to employees so they know what harassment is, what to do in cases where they’re experiencing it, what their rights are as an employee, what their responsibilities are, and provide a very clear pathway for people experiencing that, what actions they can take.

Secondly, it will ensure that there is a robust framework that will ensure that employers respond to complaints. We heard that many times people come forward when they’re experiencing harassment in the workplace and nothing happens. Employers are minimizing the impact it might be having.

The third thing is to support people who have experienced it, whether it’s emotional support or adjusted working spaces or what have you. And the labour department will be providing resources to employers to make sure that they have the tools they need to first of all create the policies, but also to do the training and awareness.

Is the hope that private and non-profit employers will follow suit?

The hope is that provinces will definitely strengthen or create their own legislation for the workplaces that they create.

There’s been heavy focus, of course, on sexual harassment as a result of the #MeToo movement, but people are experiencing workplace bullying and harassment in other ways every single day, and it has a tremendous strain on people’s mental health, on their productivity, and for employers it’s actually quite costly not to deal with it.

What is the status of the pay equity legislation?

I anticipate that we’ll have legislation to talk about later this year.

Would that legislation be about equal work, equal pay?

So the principal behind pay equity is that work of equal value gets equal pay. People often see individuals in their minds when thinking about pay equity, but it’s actually about job classification.

The example I always use is let’s take someone who’s in the job class of administrative assistant, and compare it to a maintenance worker. If those responsibilities are similar in terms of authority, decision making, use of judgment, and provide essentially the same value for the organization, often times the work that is considered women’s work is undervalued and underpaid. So in a theoretical situation where an administrative assistant is making $40,000 and a maintenance worker is making $50,000, but it’s determined that those two job classifications are actually very similar in value to the organization, that’s where the adjustment happens.  [Tyee]

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