By Kimball Cariou

The BC Federation of Labour has welcomed revisions to Employment Standards legislation and the Labour Code. Announced on April 30, these are the first significant changes since the bitterly anti-working class Liberal provincial government was defeated in 2017.

This is a “glass half full and half empty” story. In many respects, the changes fall short of the demands of labour activists, but most agree that even minor shifts away from the 16 years of attacks under the Liberals is positive.

“The Employment Standards Act is being modernized, providing a more just level of protection for BC workers while removing barriers to access to justice by removing the self-help kit and extending wage recovery times,” said BC Federation of Labour President Laird Cronk.

The BCFED applauds the increase in the minimum age for formal employment to 16 (it was a shocking 12 under the Liberals), while allowing light duty work for younger workers.

“Employment standards are particularly important for the most vulnerable workers in society, such as women, immigrants, minorities, young workers, and precarious workers,” said Cronk.

Secretary-Treasurer Sussanne Skidmore added, “Providing leave from work in cases of intimate, personal and family violence leave is the right thing to do. It’s needed for victims to start addressing the impact of violence on all aspects of their life. However, we are concerned that the most vulnerable may not access this leave because it will be unpaid.”

Similarly, the BCFED says that proposed revisions to the BC Labour Code will help restore much-needed fairness at unionized worksites.

“British Columbia remains a low-wage province, and precarious work is on the rise. The best antidote to economic inequality is greater union density,” according to Cronk, who pointed out that fewer unions means lower pay rates for workers.

The government also moved to expand successorship rights that protect workers when contract services are retendered. Contract flipping has been frequently used in sectors such as construction, food and building services, security and health care, to arbitrarily terminate collective agreements and maintain poverty-level wages.

“Contract flipping promotes a race to the bottom. Workers can lose pay and benefits – or even their job – when their employer’s contract is retendered or flipped. They need to reapply for their own jobs,” said Cronk.

The BCFED has a mixed view on Labour Code amendments, supporting changes that ensure workers’ Charter right to join a union, but voicing concerns that the “two-step” union certification process remains in place, although in a shorter time frame.

The Labour Code will preserve a secret-ballot vote for employees who want to join a union, but with a reduced delay of five days from the current ten. “A second vote in any form is a delay tactic that favours those with power in workplaces without a union, and that’s the employer,” said Cronk, arguing that a second vote should not be necessary when more than 55 percent of employees in a workplace sign cards saying they want to form a union.

The new rules will try to limit employer interference during the five-day delay before the second certification vote, a change that the labour movement intends to monitor closely.

Other observers are somewhat less optimistic. For example, writing on The Tyee website, Paul Willocks said “the NDP government… mostly got it right with changes to the two most important laws affecting the working lives of British Columbians. But they still fall far short of the changes needed to reverse a long, destructive decline in the quality of jobs in B.C. and across Canada.”

During their first term (2001-2005), the BC Liberals weakened the labour code, attacked Employment Standards, and gutted public sector union agreements (notably the BC Teachers Federation and Hospital Employees Union, which were punished for speaking out against the Campbell government). The Liberals followed this rampage by refusing to boost the minimum wage for over a decade.

In Willocks’ view, the Labour Code changes should help to address these negative trends, “at least a little.” He points out that B.C.’s private sector unionization rate dropped from 24 per cent in 1997 to 16.7 per cent in 2016, in large part due to Liberal policies that made it harder for employees to organize and bargain collectively. One such move was to add the requirement for an employee vote on unionization; until then, it had been sufficient to get signatures from 55 per cent of workers in the proposed bargaining unit.

From 1996 to 2000, about 380 new union certifications were approved each year. From 2006 to 2008, after the Liberal changes, that fell to about 100, dropping to 58 in 2018.

Labour Minister Harry Bains hoped to eliminate the vote requirement, but the minority NDP government and the BC Fed failed to win over the three Green MLAs in the Legislature.

There is widespread understanding that much more is needed to reverse the impact of many years of austerity, anti-labour policies. More and more workers are in precarious jobs, and very few in fast food and other sectors are in a union with some ability to negotiate working conditions and wages. It will remain very difficult to organize small worksites with few employees and high turnover, even if these employees all work for a handful of giant corporations or their franchisees.

A 1992 review of the Labour Code, under an earlier NDP government, proposed sectoral bargaining to increase the ability of workers in certain sectors to organize. Twenty-seven years later, the Horgan government has agreed to study this idea, guaranteeing nothing will happen during their term in office, which may or may not last until 2021. In the meantime, the quality of work available in British Columbia and across Canada will continue to decline under relentless corporate pressure.