Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, October 11, 2005
Good afternoon. Welcome to Alberta and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.
I'm here today as a spokesperson for the Alberta Federation of Labour is Alberta. The AFL is Alberta's largest labour organization, representing over 115,000 workers and their families.
As it stands now, only about 10 per cent of our members work under federal jurisdiction. But in many ways the Federal Code sets a bar for provincial codes - so our interest in this review is not narrow.
Before I get into the substance of my remarks, I want to begin by commending you on the extensive and exhaustive process that's been established for this review.
You've taken the broad view. You have allowed for a wide ranging discussion on the role of employment standards in the 21st century. You have reached out to stakeholder groups and formally included them in the process. You haven't rushed. You have taken the time to conduct a truly rigorous and thorough review. And you are in the process of conducting public hearings across this province and across the country.
The federal process stands in marked contrast to what's happening here in Albert. As you probably know, our provincial government just completed a review of our employment standards code - and it could not have been more different from what you're doing.
Instead of the broad view, our review was narrow and careful stage-managed. Instead of consulting with all stakeholders, our government only met with business. Instead of public hearings, we got a hastily thrown-together on-line questionnaire.
Frankly, in comparison to the federal review, our review comes across looking like an amateurish, one-sided, ham-handed embarrassment.
So thank you for taking the time to do your review the right way. You won't hear this said in Calgary often: but at least when it comes to these kinds of reviews, the Alberta government could learn a thing or two from the federal government.
On the subject of expectations and stereotypes, there are a lot of unfair stereotypes about Albertans. We don't all drive pick-up trucks with gun racks in the back; we don't all have pump-jacks in our back yards - and we're not all cut from the same monolithic political cloth.
However, there is one stereotype that unfortunately holds true. We do have some of the worst labour laws in the country.
As a labour activist and president of the AFL, I have seen the effects of poorly written, lop-sided and rarely enforced labour laws first hand. And it's not a pretty sight.
Just in past six months, the Alberta government watered down its Employment Standards Code to allow 12 year olds to work in restaurants; they've signed permits allowing people with disabilities to be paid less than the minimum wage; and they refused to enforce their own rules when it found the a midway company at the Edmonton Klondike Days exhibition violated the Code repeatedly.
The Alberta Employment Standards Code is full of holes; it offers too little protection for workers, and rests on an almost non-existent enforcement regime; and it is widely ignored, even mocked, by employers.
Why am I spending so much time talking about the Alberta Code? Well, because in several important respects, the federal code is not much better.
Take the issue of compliance, for example. According to recent audits, of which I'm sure you are familiar, only 25% of employers under the federal jurisdiction are in compliance with the provisions of Part III. One in four. Here in Alberta, similar audits have never been done - but the results would probably be similar, if not worse.
My question is this: what is the point of having legislated protections if the majority of employers ignore them? And, what is the point of amending and updating those protections if there is no enforcement?
From our perspective, laws and regulations mean nothing if they are not reflected in the day-to-day of real Canadian workers, in real Canadian workplaces.
In order to change this dismal situation, I think it's important to understand how we got here.
To put it simply, over the past 25 years, I think that governments in Canada, at both the provincial and federal levels, have been seduced by the pro-business crowd; they have forgotten why we have labour laws; and they have lost sight the role government needs to play in the labour market.
During the 80s and 90s the employment standards agenda largely became the business agenda. Deregulation replaced rules. Self-regulation and voluntary compliance replaced enforcement. And "flexibility" replaced worker protection as the main policy goal.
But in all these changes we've lost our way.
Labour standards are more than just words on a dusty page. They are an expression of our values - about what we will and won't accept and how we think our fellow citizens should be treated in the workplace.
Labour standards are also a recognition of the inherent power imbalance exists between employers and workers. The employment relationship is not a contract between two equal parties. For reasons of law and basic economics, most of the power rests with the employer.
That's why we have employment standards: to protect the weaker party in the contract, to ensure that the power imbalance cannot be misused to exploitative extremes.
We as a community have a right to express our moral disapproval on certain actions. For example, we have decided that child labour is not appropriate, and so have outlawed it. We have decided people deserve a day of rest each week. We have decided certain days should be days off for everyone.
Labour standards legislation is the vehicle through which the will of the public expresses itself. It is our way to ensuring that workplaces meet the moral and ethical expectations of the community around them.
I have seen nothing in the past 20 years that makes me think that workers are any less in need of protection than they were in previous generations. In fact, I think the opposite is true, with the rise of more precarious and contingent forms of work, I think, in many areas, there is more potential for abuse than in the past.
This review provides an opportunity to turn things around. It provides the federal government with a chance to find its way again and restore its commitment to protecting Canadians in the workplace and upholding our values as a community.
Today, I want to urge the federal government to become a leader in the area of labour standards. You can and should set an example for provinces like Alberta by showing them that you can protect workers without undermining economic prosperity.
While Alberta permits 12-year olds to work, you should prohibit it. While Alberta refuses to offer compassionate leave or family responsibility leave, you should provide it. While Alberta continues to let its minimum wage drag near the bottom of the pack, you should step forward boldly with a strategy for a Living Wage.
And, most importantly, while Alberta continues to run away from enforcing its own laws, you should step up and send the message that the rules must be taken seriously.
If you take strong steps to revitalize federal labour standards, I strongly believe you will quickly be copied. Other provinces will be watching, and when they find out that you can shore up labour standards without negatively affecting business, they will join in.
I have no doubt there will be some initial outcry from employer lobby groups when you try to toughen rules and bolster enforcement. But you need to ask for proof of hardship.
When Alberta recently increased its minimum wage by $1.10 an hour, many employer groups were saying this was too much. The end result? The economy barely felt it. A significant number of workers received a raise and no employer laid off staff, no employer significantly increased prices. The system absorbed it.
When you raise the bar for everyone equally, no competitive disadvantage is created. What happens - miraculously - is that the new requirements quickly become the new norm. I believe this is what will happen with improved labour standards.
Don't be afraid of pro-rated benefits for part time workers. Don't be afraid of allowing workers to refuse overtime. Don't be afraid of increased vacation entitlements. These are practical ideas that reflect Canadian values. Be a leader. Be the example that everyone else looks at.
The federal government has the ability to reinvigorate employment standards. And if they do, millions of Canadians will thank them for it.
Thank you for your time.