The February 2 by-elections in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant and Coquitlam-Burke Mountain offer an opportunity for candidates to clarify their parties’ positions on an important, often neglected, area of government policy – employment standards legislation.
The BC Employment Standards Act governs the conditions in which people do paid work, and it is particularly important for lower-paid and precarious workers who lack union representation. The ESA deals with issues such as the minimum wage, minimum and maximum hours of work, overtime pay, parental leave and statutory holidays. It’s supposed to provide a basic level of protection for all workers, providing assurance that they can earn a decent living under reasonable conditions, protect their personal safety and balance their work and family life.
The Employment Standards Act has not been reviewed through an independent public enquiry process for over 20 years. Yet over that period dramatic changes have taken place in the labour market, and to the conditions under which people are employed. A significant and growing portion of workers are employed in part-time, casual or temporary jobs, or are self-employed. Wages, least of all legislated minimum wages, have not even kept pace with the cost of living, especially the cost of housing in large urban areas. Rapid exchange rate decline is pushing up the cost of imported foods.
These trends have contributed to persistently high levels of poverty and income inequality. In addition, employers have increasingly relied on the use of temporary foreign workers in order to avoid providing local workers with decent wages and working conditions that a normally functioning labour market would require them to provide.
The BC Employment Standards Coalition therefore calls on the parties fielding candidates in the up-coming provincial by-elections to declare their support for an independent and comprehensive public review of the Employment Standards Act. In addition, there are reforms that can and should be made immediately in three areas: minimum wages, child labour protections and migrant worker rights and protections.
Under the Employment Standards Regulations there are now three levels of minimum wage: the general minimum wage at $10.45 per hour, the liquor server minimum wage at $9.20 per hour, and a schedule of minimum piece-rates for farm workers who hand harvest fruits, berries and certain vegetables and flowers – rates that have only increased twice in the last 14 years. This discriminatory differential treatment of workers in different sectors and occupations should end, and the minimum hourly wage for all workers should be set at $15 per hour, with an automatic annual formula-based adjustment.
In 2003, without the benefit of an independent public review, the provincial government deregulated and lowered the standards for employment of children to such an extent that BC has the lowest standards of protection in Canada. The government ended over 50 years of direct government oversight of children aged 12 to 14 at work, effectively lowering the provincial work-start age to 12 — three years younger than the work-start age set by the International Labour Organization. This must be changed.
Until 2004 the only temporary foreign worker program operating in BC was the Live-In Caregiver Program, and shamefully those employed through that program are granted limited recognition or protections in the Employment Standards Act. However, since 2004 the federal government has changed and significantly expanded its temporary foreign worker programs, with the full support of the provincial government. This has resulted in dramatic increases in the number and type of temporary foreign workers employed in BC. These workers have few or no rights or protections that recognize the precarious nature of their employment, and their vulnerability to exploitation by recruiters and employers. Several provinces (e.g. Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia) have enacted special employment standards legislation to give better rights and protections to temporary foreign workers. BC needs to do the same.
So let’s hear where the parties and candidates stand on these important issues.
Adrienne Montani is Provincial Coordinator of First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, and member of the BC Employment Standards Coalition. David Fairey is a labour economist, a research associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ BC Office, and Co-Chair of the BC Employment Standards Coalition.