Turning a blind eye to employers who break the law doesn't solve the problem

December 12, 2005

Imagine if one day our police forces were cut in half, street patrols were eliminated, police stations closed, and people were told to send a lengthy form to police headquarters to report a crime.

Doesn’t sound like such a great idea? Unfortunately, it’s pretty much what the BC government has done when it comes to making sure employment standards laws are enforced in this province.

Employment standards laws and their enforcement are supposed to ensure that all workers receive a basic level of pay and protection. They cover things like the minimum wage, minimum and maximum hours of work, overtime pay and stat holidays. They are important to all workers because they create a minimum floor below which employers cannot go, and provide a starting point for any negotiations for improved conditions. They also create an even playing field for employers.

In the past few years, the provincial government has lowered these basic rules significantly. It has also gutted the enforcement system. Since 2001, enforcement staff at the Employment Standards Branch — the people whose job it is to make sure the rules are followed — have been cut by one third. Branch offices around the province have been closed. Instead of 17 offices there are now only 9, leaving vast regions with only one office.

The province also changed the way workers are able to report violations of the rules. It used to be that a worker could tell the Employment Standards Branch about a violation — for example, an employer who refuses to pay overtime rates — and the branch would investigate. Sometimes complaints were rejected, but the vast majority of the time they resulted in what’s called a “finding of violation” — meaning the employer was found guilty of breaking the rules.

Now, an employee who wants to report an employment standards violation must first confront their employer — on their own — using a complicated 16-page “Self-Help Kit” before they are even allowed to file a complaint with the Branch. The kit is only available in English, and only from the Ministry of Labour’s website or from one of the remaining 9 Branch offices.

It’s possible that some people might feel comfortable confronting their employer about the law not being followed. But most probably don’t — especially if they’re already working in a marginal situation and can’t afford the risk of being fired for making a fuss. Fear of job loss, or some other form of employer reprisal keeps most workers from filing legitimate complaints. In fact, most of the time, people don’t report a violation of the rules until after they’ve left the job.

Given how hard it now is to report violations, it’s not too surprising that complaints to the Employment Standards Branch plummeted immediately after these changes were made. In fact, the year after the “Self-Help Kit” was brought in, complaints dropped by 45%. And they’ve gone down even more since then.

It would be great news if this dramatic change were the result of a sudden improvement in employer behaviour. But this is about as likely as finding that taking police off the streets results in less crime being committed. Instead, thousands of British Columbians who depend on employment standards to earn a living under fair working conditions have been left to fend for themselves.

David Fairey is a labour economist and author of the recently published Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study “Eroding Worker Protections: BC’s New ‘Flexible’ Employment Standards.” www.policyalternatives.ca