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BC Pledges a Big Budget Boost to Protect Workers’ Rights

Critics welcome the funding, but say there’s a long way to go to restore the Employment Standards Branch’s effectiveness.

Zak Vescera 24 Feb 2023TheTyee.ca

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Graeme Moore remembers the day a junkyard owner set three dogs on him. They chased him all the way back to his car.

And when his tires were slashed by an angry employer. Or the time his windows were broken, or when a rifle was pointed at him.

Such was life as an officer in British Columbia’s Employment Standards Branch, the agency tasked with upholding the province’s employment laws, he said. The branch is charged with ensuring workers get the protections they are entitled to when it comes to sick days, holiday pay, hours of work, unpaid wages and other regulations in the Employment Standards Act.

Moore, an officer with the branch from 1977 to 2001, said it had real power at that time. “When you get caught, and there was a good likelihood you are going to get caught, it’s going to cost you big time.”

Former Employment Standards Branch employees say it is now a shadow of its former self — something B.C.’s government says it wants to change.

On Thursday, Labour Minister Harry Bains announced $11.9 million in new money for the branch over the next three years, part of a response to a backlog of cases that have left many employees waiting months or years for help. That would mean a roughly 22-per-cent budget increase for the branch this fiscal year.

Bains says it is part of a larger project to revitalize the branch after deep cuts during the previous BC Liberal government.

Since 2017, when the NDP government was elected, the branch’s annual funding has risen from $7.9 million to more than $14 million, and its staffing has grown from 98 full-time equivalents to about 142.

Bains says officers are being encouraged to pivot from a complaint-based model to one based on investigations. “I think it’s clearly going in the right direction,” Bains said in a previous interview with The Tyee.

But it’s still well short of what advocates want. And officers from the 1990s say the branch has a long way to go in becoming more effective.

“There is no culture in the branch to do what me and former officers were doing back in those days,” said former manager Dave Ages.

Ages joined the branch in 1985. It attracted a mix of employees from labour and business who shared a dislike of “cheats,” he said.

Moore says the branch didn’t arbitrarily go after employers, but aimed to ensure businesses couldn’t cut costs at the expense of workers’ rights.

The law empowered the branch to investigate potential violations, inspect a business’s books and visit the premises. If the branch found an employer was breaking the law, it could get a court order to seize assets or property, he said. Moore said he was involved in a case where a bailiff impounded a business owner’s Mercedes-Benz while he was at the golf course.

“We were hired to deal with confrontation,” Ages said. “And if you weren’t able to do that, you couldn’t do the job.”

“I looked at every complaint as an invitation to educate an employer,” Ages said. “I would tell employers, why would you fight me? I’m the easier person in the world to get along with, until I’m not.”

The branch investigated employers of bike couriers, pizza delivery drivers and entertainers at the No5 Orange strip club in Vancouver, Ages said, and determined those workers were employees, rather than contractors. The names of businesses who repeatedly broke the rules were shared publicly, he said. “We used to be in the business of shaming,” Moore said.

It wasn’t perfect, Ages said. But the branch’s presence was such that its existence spurred employers to follow the rules. By the late ‘90s, it was receiving more than 20,000 complaints a year.

Then came the cuts. In 2002, the newly elected BC Liberal government eliminated 45 of 151 positions at the branch and closed roughly half its offices. By the 2016-17 fiscal year, there were fewer than 100 staff left.

In a 2001 Vancouver Sun article, then-labour minister Graham Bruce said most of the branch’s complaints came from just five per cent of businesses.

He argued the employment standards laws of the time were too restrictive and unrealistic for businesses to follow. The BC Liberals went on to introduce a “self-help kit” model that encouraged workers to find a resolution with their employers before consulting the branch. Officers conducted their investigations by phone.

“There's the pretense that workers and bosses are somehow at the same power level,” Moore said.

Today many workers wait months or even years to get help from the branch. In 2017, the branch received 4,400 complaints; in 2022, there were more than 7,700.

Part of that increase was sparked by a flood of firings and layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the Labour Ministry also eliminated the self-help kit model introduced by the BC Liberals. Critics say those kits discouraged workers from raising complaints.

“Workers didn’t feel the system was there to support them, so they didn’t care to bring any complaints,” Bains said in a recent interview with The Tyee.

The new funding will increase funding by $3.1 million in the next fiscal year, $4 million in 2024-25 and $4.8 million in the following year.

The funding, unveiled before Premier David Eby’s first budget Tuesday, will pay for 33 new officers to process everything from employer investigations to approvals for the record number of B.C. businesses that want to hire temporary foreign workers.

Sussanne Skidmore, the president of the BC Federation of Labour, says the branch is a “lifeline” for many workers, especially newcomers who face language barriers in accessing services.

“We are quite excited about the announcement. This will do a lot of service to get towards justice for these workers,” Skidmore said.

But she acknowledged the funding is well short of what the federation wanted. It had previously asked for the branch’s funding to be doubled to $28 million.

Greg Kyllo, the BC Liberal labour critic, said Bains should have anticipated that scrapping the self-help kits would increase demand. He says he wants more data on what kinds of complaints are burdening the branch so government can cut the wait time.

“Employees are being denied the opportunity for what any British Columbian would believe to be a fair, equitable and reasonable response,” he said. He also rejected the suggestion the deep cuts his party made to the branch were linked to its current woes.

“Trying to blame a previous government from over six years ago for somehow being responsible…. That’s a laughable approach,” Kyllo said.

Pamela Charron, the executive director of the Worker’s Solidarity Network, said her organization routinely hears from workers who have been waiting for one to two years just to resolve a complaint. She said the new funding is a good first step but wants to see set deadlines and targets.

“At a time when inflation is high and wages are still very low, workers can’t afford to wait when their complaints are taking forever,” Charron said.

Andreea Micu, a legal advocate with the network, said part of the problem is inexperienced investigators who push workers to settle a complaint, rather than recoup all the wages owed to them. She said the lack of strong fines and enforcement means some employers repeatedly violate the law.

“There’s not much for employers to lose beyond paying up what they should have paid up in the first place and maybe just a little bit of a fine here or there,” Micu said.

Bains insists the branch is returning to an investigation-based model. Among other things, the branch recently began once again publishing a public list of employers who had been fined.

But workers’ advocates say there’s a long way to go.

“We’re hoping that this is not the last time in the near future that we’re going to see a big increase at the branch,” Micu said.  [Tyee]

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