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Canada’s Labour Minister Promises More Protections for Workers Coming

But there’s more to labour’s agenda than restoring union rights, and government still has work to do, says critic.

By Katie Hyslop 6 Jul 2017 | TheTyee.ca

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

The federal Liberal government delivered on one of its key 2015 election campaign promises last month when Bill C-4 came into effect, effectively repealing previous Conservative government legislation that was widely seen by organized labour as “union busting.”

“It’s critical that we have a strong labour movement for the prosperity of our country, and for the fair treatment of workers, which is the foundation of prosperity,” Labour Minister Patti Hajdu said in an interview with The Tyee in Vancouver Wednesday.

Hajdu says Bill C-4 is just one aspect of her office’s efforts to protect workers. It’s also working on changes to the federal labour code to protect people with precarious jobs from abuse, and plans to ensure government skills development programs and funding meet the needs of workers more likely to change jobs and careers than their parents were.

But Hajdu is also being pushed by labour unions to include protections for domestic and temporary foreign workers in all trade agreements.

Canada is in exploratory free trade talks with China, whose recent free trade agreement with Australia included provisions allowing Chinese businesses to import their own workers and set wages and working conditions on projects in Australia.

With Chinese businesses already investing in natural resource projects in B.C. and Alberta, workers in Canada are concerned they’ll lose out in a free trade agreement.

Hajdu said she would fight for the best deal for Canadians.

But the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) wants to know “which Canadians?”

“Are you talking about workers, or are you talking about Bay Street?’” asked Angella MacEwen, a CLC senior economist.

“It’s well-know that there are winners and losers in trade. [Is government] taking into account whether this deal is making us more or less equal?”

Tension around ‘progressive’ trade deals

The current federal government is trying for a better relationship with the country’s labour unions, creating legislation that Hajdu said is informed by input from workers and employers.

“This government was elected on a promise to grow the middle class,” she said. And after speaking with union leaders on the campaign trail, “it became clear that [Bill C-4] had to be one of the first pieces of legislation that we introduced, because it was foundational to a strong and healthy organized labour movement.”

The Liberals put the legislation forward almost immediately after winning the 2015 election. But it took almost two years to get the legislation passed because of Conservative members of the Senate, Hajdu said.

“Many of the Conservative senators who were involved in pushing through that [Conservative] legislation, fought long and hard to try and ‘amend’ the bill — it was in fact about ‘gutting’ the bill,” she said, adding she refused to include their amendments in a new version of the bill.

“It was narrowly passed the second time [in the Senate].”

MacEwen said the CLC is “happy enough” with Bill C-4’s repeal of the previous Conservative government’s Bills 377 and 525 that restricted union certification and forced financial accountability measures that no other Canadian organizations had to abide by.

However, when it comes to protections for workers through trade agreements, MacEwen said the government is listening to what workers want, but “I’m not sure they understand yet.”

“I just think that it’s such a different perspective. They’re having trouble wrapping their heads around what progressive really means to us,” she said, adding her union prefers multilateral trade agreements where several countries can put pressure on powerful countries like China to make concessions, versus a bilateral deal where only Canada’s tiny leverage is brought to bear on the economic superpower.

For example, Hajdu told The Tyee that the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union has “progressive sections” on labour.

But MacEwen said that without government’s definition of “progressive,” it’s a meaningless statement, particularly since the agreement lacks teeth when it comes to enforcing its worker protections.

Tackling ‘abusive’ practices in precarious work

The heyday of Canadian unions has passed — at least for the time being. Membership hasn’t surpassed 40 per cent of workers since 1981, and has remained steady at roughly one-third of all workers in Canada for nearly 20 years.

The stagnation in union membership has coincided with the rise in precarious work for youth, women, and people of colour, subjecting already vulnerable workers to a variety of workplace abuses.

The labour minister said she hopes to put an end to “precarious” work abuses by rewriting parts of the federal labour code. Abusive practices include paying a part-time worker less per hour than a full-time worker doing the same job, or companies selling workers’ contracts to new bosses that cut their salaries.

“We’re actually developing legislation right now to start to address some of those things... that we consider abusive,” she said, adding the hope is they’ll inspire provinces to change their own labour codes.

Hajdu makes a distinction between “precarious employment” and the “flexibility and adaptiveness” required of workers in today’s job market, where a job or career may last a few years, versus 25 years. Her ministry has a role to play, she added, in ensuring workers have access to the skills development and training support needed to pursue new jobs and careers.

“That’s going to help us, by the way, stay very responsive as an economy,” Hajdu said, adding changes could include access to funding for skills training for part-time workers, not just the unemployed, and updating the federal government job bank with a new app.

“We’re going to be able to fill our own labour shortages if we stay responsive.”

More to do for foreign workers

For now, filling labour shortages means relying on temporary foreign and migrant workers, who also face abuse from employers.

Hajdu said the federal government is making changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, such as implementing surprise workplace inspections rather than the scheduled inspections of the past to catch employers who have tried to hide abuses.

She pointed to a recent case in the Okanagan where farmers were temporarily banned from receiving temporary foreign worker permits by the Canadian government after a surprise government inspection.

MacEwen said government could be doing more to protect these workers, like letting them leave their original employer for a new job in cases of abuse, and opening up an anonymous abuse tip line like one that already exists in Manitoba.

Both labour and government agree, however, agree that changes to labour laws mean nothing if workers and employers aren’t aware of their rights and responsibilities, and government isn’t making sure they’re enforced.  [Tyee]

Read more: Labour + Industry

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