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‘We Have Work to Do’: BC’s New Labour Minister

Harry Bains on protecting workers, the path to fairer wages, and working with ‘our Green friends.’

By Rachel Sanders 4 Sep 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Rachel Sanders is a Vancouver journalist, editor and photographer. Her work has been broadcast on CBC Radio and has appeared in the Toronto Star, the Georgia Straight and the Victoria Times Colonist. Find her on Twitter here.

Harry Bains has his work cut out for him. As part of an NDP government taking over after 16 years of Liberal rule in British Columbia, the new minister of labour has a long list of items on his agenda.

Bains, the fourth-term MLA for Surrey-Newton, comes from a labour relations background, having served as an elected officer with Steelworkers-IWA Canada Local 2171. As the new minister, Bains told The Tyee his first priority is the safety of workers.

“WorkSafeBC is under my jurisdiction, and as such I feel that we have a responsibility to make workplaces for our workers the safest workplace jurisdiction in Canada,” he said.

Although he noted that most employers in the province take worker health and safety seriously, Bains said more needs to be done to ensure workers are safe.

“We need more resources, more emphasis on prevention so that the workers’ health and safety is the number one priority,” he said.

A rigorous enforcement regime, and respectful care for workers with injuries or work-related illnesses are also at the top of Bains’ priority list.

“We need to redouble our efforts to make sure that we achieve that goal.”

Non-union workers ‘need support’

Second to worker safety, Bains said he’s prioritizing the needs of workers who don’t have union protection.

“There are many non-union workers out there. They need support,” he said.

Although most employers follow employment laws and health and safety regulations, Bains said, there are exceptions.

“We always find a few who like to take shortcuts,” he said. “And there are many complaints at the Employment Standards Branch about unpaid wages, exploitation, abuse. We need to make sure that those workers’ rights are protected at their workplaces.”

Bains said one area of concern is the 16-page self-help kit that workers are currently required to fill out before they can file a complaint against an employer with the Employment Standards Branch.

“It is a serious problem,” he said. “We need to look at all those areas that would help workers to ensure that when they have a complaint that their complaint is processed in an expeditious manner and that they get the justice that they deserve.”

Bains’s mandate letter from Premier John Horgan specifically states that he must explore whether changes are needed to the Employment Standards Act.

“We are looking at other jurisdictions. We are looking inwards and outward to see what fits our needs and the workers’ in British Columbia so that their health and safety and their rights are protected.”

Bains said the government would take the review of the act being conducted by the B.C. Law Institute under consideration.

“I will be looking at all recommendations. There are a number of groups that are actually doing a review right now,” he said. “But at the end of the day we need to consult with employers, consult with workers and their representatives, make sure that we do a thorough consultation and then we come up with the changes.”

Increased funding for the Employment Standards Branch, which would allow for more proactive enforcement of employment standards, is also under consideration.

“There are many budgetary issues that we need to consider. How do we go about this? How do we balance our needs along with all the other government needs?” he said. “That process is under way. I think it’ll take some time for us to put all those pieces together.”

The bottom line, the minister said, is that the most vulnerable workers in British Columbia will be given more protection.

“I’m committed to make sure that they will get the protection, their rights are protected, and that when they have a complaint that their complaint is processed in an expedited manner and that it is not too onerous for them to do,” he said.

Backing off minimum wage promise

The NDP campaigned on a promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2021, a commitment Bains repeated last month.

But Bains now says the timeline for the minimum wage increase — as well as the fate of such exemptions as the lower liquor server wage — would be decided based on a report from the fair wages commission that the government will convene later this month.

“The fair wage commission will be looking at minimum wage. That applies to every area of the employment standards. There are farm workers, there are liquor servers there are piece workers,” he said. “All those areas need to be looked at and they will be coming back with recommendations on every area.”

Temporary foreign worker registry on the way

The government also announced plans last month to create a registry of temporary foreign workers similar to those already in use in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

“My intention is that we can make sure that there’s no exploitation, there’s no abuse of their rights. That if they feel that their rights are being not protected that they have an avenue to have it addressed,” he said.

The registry, he said, would also reveal which industries are hiring temporary foreign workers and for what jobs.

“That also will help us develop our future plans to look at our skill inventory,” he said.

Bains said he’d like to see all temporary foreign workers have a path to permanent residency in Canada. The provincial government, he said, needs to work with the federal government to make that happen.

“Canada was built, basically, with immigrants. Many of them were temporary foreign workers, then that led them to become full-time permanent residents,” he said. “I think there should be a pathway for those workers to become permanent residents so that they enjoy their full rights as any other worker.”

Working with ‘Green friends’ on labour code

A review of the labour code is also part of the labour minister’s mandate. Bains dismissed concerns that disagreement between the NDP and the Green Party over unionization rules could hamper efforts to make changes.

“I will work with our Green friends,” he said.

Proper consultation with unions and employers, he said, will result in changes that will reflect today’s economy.

“We want to make sure that employers and unions feel that they have a place to go where they can seek help and get help and resolve disputes and also help them promote their areas of interest,” he said.

Bains is confident that consultation will create a productive relationship between all interested parties.

“There’s always this notion that the trade union movement somehow is an impediment to economic growth. I disagree with that,” he said. “Workers, labour unions, their representatives, employers, they’ve worked together over the last 150 years ever since our country was created. They played an equal role in developing our country and taking it to a level that is the envy of the world today.”

Bains reiterated the message of co-operation that has been the NDP government’s talking point since their agreement with the Green Party was announced in May.

“The message to the labour and to the business community is that we are here to help you both work together,” he said. “So that we can grow our economy, attract investment to British Columbia, where businesses will feel that that they will get a good return on their investment.”

Workers, he said, should also feel confident that the government is setting out to protect their interests.

“I think as a government you can help both sides, encourage them to have a very co-operative, consultative environment of labour relations where you respect each other, you understand each other and try to understand and develop policies and mechanisms to resolve your disputes in a more amicable and co-operative way,” he said.

“We are all working towards one goal, which is to make everybody’s — all British Columbians’ — lives better.”  [Tyee]

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