The B.C. government has introduced legislation that Labour Minister Harry Bains says will better protect working people in the province.
“Working people are the lifeblood of this province,” Bains said. “I believe that when we strengthen protections for workers, we strengthen our communities and our economy.”
Changes the Employment Standards Amendment Act, 2019, makes include:
• Raising to 16 the age at which young people may do dangerous work such as construction or mining. The former BC Liberal government had dropped the age to 12 in 2003. Raising it to 16 brings it in line with recommendations from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the International Labour Organization.
• Continuing to allow people who are 14 or 15 years old to do “light work” such as stocking shelves at a grocery store or working on a family farm with more details of specific industries or types of jobs to come.
• Allowing workers who are trying to escape domestic violence to take unpaid leave. The leave includes the right to take 10 non-consecutive days to do things like attend appointments as well as up to 15 weeks of consecutive days.
• Giving workers the right to return to their job after taking up to 36 weeks of unpaid leave to look after a critically ill child or 16 weeks to take care of an adult.
• Making it easier for workers to collect wages that they have earned, including by creating rules for tip pooling and prohibiting employers from taking tips from workers.
• Extending the period for which workers can recover wages to 12 months from the current six, and in some cases to 24 months.
• Ensuring that anyone entering a new collective agreement, or renewing an existing one, will at a minimum still have the protections included in the Employment Standards Act.
• Eliminating the self-help kits that workers were required to use to resolve issues with employers before they could formally submit a complaint to the Employment Standards Branch.
• Requiring employers to inform workers of their rights, including by posting them in the workplace.
Bains said the changes will level the playing field so that employers who treat workers poorly won’t have an economic advantage over ones who treat workers well.
The government has added $4 million to the budget for the Employment Standards Branch this year and is hiring more than 40 staff whose work will include enforcing the changes the government is making, he said.
He added that the overall goal is to adopt a proactive approach instead of one that is complaint-driven.
Bains said the self-help kit process was daunting and many people gave up, especially people for whom English is a second language. After the kits were introduced, the number of complaints dropped from 11,000 a year to 5,000, he said. “Justice wasn’t delivered.”
The changes announced Monday are the first updates to employment standards in the province for 15 years.
The legislation didn’t address two issues that came up in the consultation process — fairness for terminated workers and rules for hours of work and overtime.
Laird Cronk, the president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, was at the legislature for the announcement. “I’m happy for the first time in 20 years to see changes that rebalance, or start to rebalance, the laws for workers,” he said. “It’s nice to see.”
Cronk said he likes the direction the government is headed and looks forward to getting more specifics. “A lot of the things we need to see is more detail, like what is ‘light duty?’ Like how are they going to deal with some of the provisions on enforcement, where they talk about being proactive?”
Pamela Charron, a coordinator with the Retail Action Network who has worked for 10 years as a server, a job she continues to do part-time, welcomed the changes.
“It will really benefit me considering I live off my tips,” Charron said. “It’s really hard to get by in British Columbia because it’s so expensive. Now that my wages and my tips are being protected it feels more safe and secure.”
She described her experience with a past employer who collected the tips then distributed them based on favouritism. “It’s a really common experience. It happens a lot,” she said.
Bains said a second piece of legislation is coming today to amend the Labour Relations Code.
The BC Fed has been pressing the Green Party caucus to change its position and support changes it says are needed, including removing the need for a two-step process that includes a secret ballot for workers wanting to join a union.
Cronk said, “Hopefully we see rebalancing like we did today.”