CALGARY -- Alberta's higher minimum wage set to kick in April 1 is progress but condemns the lowest earners to continued poverty, a union leader said yesterday.
Premier Ed Stelmach hailed the increase of the bottom wage to $8.40 from $8 as a means of helping mainly service industry workers keep pace with the booming province's rising cost of living.
"This will ensure minimum-wage earners share in Alberta's continued economic prosperity," said Stelmach, adding the 4.6% hike reflects the general increase in Alberta wages over the past year.
While welcoming the increase, Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the rate level puts low-income earners permanently behind the economic curve.
Edmonton Journal, Wed Mar 19 2008
To Canadian employers and the federal government, Rajinder Kumar represents a solution to a labour shortage.
To union leaders and immigrant advocates, the tandoori chef from New Delhi, brought to Canada by a Toronto restaurant last fall, is a modern version of the indentured servant.
All Kumar wanted when he came in under the temporary foreign worker program was a decent job that paid enough to send his two children in India to a private school where they would get a chance at a better life. What the 43 year old got instead were 14-hour days sweating over a stove and threats and intimidation if he quit.
"I can't go home now. I've spent a lot of time and money to be here," said Kumar, who has $200 left in his pocket. He claims he is owed $3,000 in unpaid wages. "I need to work and earn my air ticket to go home."
For decades, the temporary worker program has served as a kind of back door to Canada mainly for highly skilled professionals, seasonal farm workers and nannies.
Unlike the clogged immigration system, the program can respond quickly to fluctuating labour demands.
But an expansion of the program and loosening of rules to let in more low-skilled labour - the centrepiece of this week's announced plan by Immigration Minister Diane Finley to overhaul immigration - raises troubling questions not only about the program's ability to protect the record number of foreign workers arriving here, but also its impact on Canadian wages.
Critics say that in certain low-wage sectors - restaurants, retail stores, warehouses and factories - the program is nothing more than a way for employers to bring in cheap "offshore" labour, instead of raising wages for low-income Canadians.
"By expanding the temporary foreign worker program, Canada is creating a pool of disposable workers to do jobs at a wage that Canadians won't accept," said Karl Flecker, a national director of the Canadian Labour Congress.
"That's scaremongering," Finley responded in an interview this week. "Temporary foreign workers must be treated equally with Canadian workers."
Last month, the minister said the government is expanding the program in Ontario, by opening an office designed to make it easier for employers in fields with shortages - such as medicine, nursing, engineering and mechanics - to apply.
But advocates for workers' rights fear that Ontario, like B.C. and Alberta, will soon see a large influx of low-skilled workers whose work permit is tied to a single employer and who are vulnerable to exploitation thanks to language barriers, poor education and unfamiliarity with Canada's labour laws.
"It's already a very bad situation (in Ontario) for the domestic workers and farm workers," said Deena Ladd of the Workers' Action Centre, a Toronto-based advocacy group, referring to cases involving long hours with no overtime and unpaid wages. "This is going to open a new can of worms."
In 2006, the federal government issued 106,750 temporary foreign worker permits, almost half of those for Ontario employers. Total figures for 2007 have not been released, but 103,000 were issued within the first nine months. At that rate, the final tally for 2007 is likely to be 30,000 above the previous year.
While nannies and farm labourers continue to make up the largest chunk of foreign workers, the last two years have seen a surge in fast-food and kitchen helpers, meat-cutters, cleaners, truck drivers and factory workers.
In Alberta, the oil boom and a rush of construction have pushed the hunt for workers into the retail, manufacturing and service industries - the kinds of jobs Canada's immigration "points" system, with its emphasis on university education and professional skills, tends to screen out.
The increase can also be attributed, in part, to the Harper government easing restrictions on the hiring of temporary foreign workers. For example, employers now only have to advertise a position in a federal job centre for seven days before searching abroad, while the previous rules required advertising in local newspapers for six weeks.
In November, the Alberta Federation of Labour released a report showing there was rampant abuse of foreign workers - in a province where 37,000 temporary worker applications were approved last year.
Because of suspicions of widespread exploitation, the federation set up an advocacy office last April. In the first six months, it received more than 1,400 inquiries and opened case files for 123 workers. Some 89 cases involved unregulated third-party brokers, mostly overseas, who charged workers $3,000 to $10,000 for their services and presented misleading claims.
"The bulk of cases concerned workers experiencing problems with working conditions: Wages lower than promised, job provided being radically different than promised, job disappearing upon arrival, demands to perform inappropriate personal services, racist behaviour, threats of deportation and imprisonment," the report states.
In light of these incidents, the Alberta government is spending $1 million a year to hire more workplace inspectors and set up offices in Edmonton and Calgary to help foreign workers with employment issues. It is also running a $700,000 educational campaign.
Ontario currently has no plan to invest in similar measures, a labour ministry official said.
A big question left unanswered is who ought to be responsible for the workers once they're in Canada.
Before arriving in Toronto last November to start his $36,000-a-year job as a head chef at the Amaya Express, Kumar said his employer advised he would be working a 40-hour week. Instead, he said he began doing 14-hour-a-day shifts.
Kumar claims he was threatened by his employer and contacted police. The Workers' Action Centre has since filed a complaint with the Ontario Ministry of Labour on his behalf. No ruling has been made on the complaint by the ministry.
Restaurant owner Hemant Bhagwani has denied the allegations and said he was unaware of the complaint to the ministry.
In another Ontario case, 11 welders and plumbers from the Philippines paid brokers almost $10,000 to come to Toronto under the program. When they arrived last summer, they were subcontracted to do menial work in Barrie, including at an Aurora water bottling plant. For two months their wages were withheld. When they were finally paid, the hourly rate was $14 instead of the promised $23.
Threatened with deportation if they quit, one worker contacted the Filipino embassy, which found them jobs in Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island.
In response to a complaint by the Canadian Labour Congress on behalf of the Filipinos, Service Canada officials responded that the role of monitoring workers on the job, foreign or Canadian, lies with the provinces, not the federal government.
Congress officials say the federal government has a duty to these guest workers and have called for a national monitoring system to protect them from being exploited. Ideally, union leaders say they would like to see the program focus mainly on high-skilled professionals or be scrapped entirely.
Few would dispute there is a labour shortage in certain sectors. The debate is whether Canada is really short on low-skilled labour.
Last year Service Canada issued a 10-year forecast predicting no general shortage of lower-skilled workers in Canada.
With unemployment at just 3.2 per cent, Alberta can justify its demand for a foreign worker program, said Arthur Sweetman, director of the school of policy studies at Queen's University.
But he isn't sure the program should be expanded to some other parts of the country, including Ontario, with its 6.3 per cent jobless rate.
Rising wages are usually the best indicator of a labour shortage, yet Statistics Canada and labour experts say wages for low-skilled work have been stagnant for years.
Some argue low-skilled foreign workers are needed to do unpleasant jobs that Canadians refuse to do at current pay scales - like the caregiver and farm worker jobs that often pay $7 to $10 an hour.
"If people don't want to do it, it's a labour shortage," said Andrew Cardozo, executive director of the Alliance of Sector Councils, a body of business, education, labour and professional groups representing half of the Canadian economy.
"Yes, employers could pay higher wages, but it's going to drive up the cost of goods.
"Are people going to pay $3 for a Tim Hortons coffee?"
Toronto Star, Sat Mar 15 2008
Byline: Nicholas Keung
The provincial government should consider taking oilsands products directly to U.S. consumers, and perhaps set up its own line of gas stations south of the border, the Alberta Federation of Labour says.
"If the Alberta government is serious about moving up the value chain, they may have to consider building their own mechanisms for delivery," the federation said in a new report touted as a blueprint for developing the oilsands.
Besides calling for higher royalty rates, stricter environmental standards and a slower development pace, the document, entitled Black Gold, Clear Vision, suggests Alberta get more involved in upgrading and refining.
It criticizes the Conservatives for allowing raw bitumen to be shipped to the U.S. to be upgraded and refined into products such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
Bitumen should at least be upgraded to synthetic crude in Alberta, and the government should also aim to have more of the refining done at home, AFL president Gil McGowan said Friday.
Alberta could then send finished products to the U.S., keeping more jobs and profit in the province. If American companies resist the move, the province may have to sell the products itself, the document suggests.
"This might involve building dedicated, refined products pipelines. It might even involve looking for retail options in the U.S.," the report says. "The pre-Chavez government of Venezuela did exactly this when they successfully established the Citgo chain of gas stations in the U.S."
McGowan the report was released in the hopes of influencing voters before the provincial election. "The oilsands are so important that we simply can't afford to get it wrong," McGowan said. "While Albertans are being relegated to the lowest rung of the energy ladder, our leaders are asleep at the wheel. We're just afraid that by the time they wake up, the opportunity will have been lost."
Many are criticizing Premier Stelmach after a deal to pipe more bitumen to the US was approved by the National Energy Board.
Enbridge now has approval to begin construction on the $2 billion Canadian portion of the Alberta Clipper.
The deal was approved on Friday and many critics believe it will send more than just raw bitumen to the US.
The Alberta Federation of Labour argues the Premier should have prevented the deal so the oil could have been refined in the province.
"We're talking literally thousands and thousands of jobs that could have been created here in Alberta, but will instead go to places in the American mid-west and the American Gulf Coast," said Gil McGowan with the Alberta Federation of Labour.
A Tory spokesperson told CTV News that Alberta doesn't have the capacity to refine all of its bitumen. They say about two thirds of the oilsands drawn from Alberta are currently refined within the province.
The Premier's office says as more upgraders are built, more local companies can refine crude oil.
The Canadian stretch of the pipeline will run from Enbridge's terminal near Hardisty to the American border crossing near Gretna, Manitoba.
The bitumen will be piped to Superior, Wisonsin and will then be refined in the USA.
This is the second project to be approved in the last six months to pipe crude oil into the USA. The Keystone Pipeline was approved in September.
Construction on the Alberta Clipper is expected to be complete by December 2009.
CTV.ca News Staff, Sun Feb 24 2008
HINTON - Conservative Leader Ed Stelmach was criticized Saturday for failing to stem the flow of bitumen to the United States after regulatory approval was given to a pipeline project that will ship the product south.
The National Energy Board's approval late Friday of the $3-billion Alberta Clipper pipeline will initially see up to 450,000 barrels of bitumen per day shipped to Wisconsin when it becomes operational in mid-2010, with the potential to reach 800,000 barrels per day.
The pipeline is one of several projects announced or approved in the past year that will see bitumen upgraded or refined in the United States, sending potentially billions of investment dollars and thousands of value-added jobs down the pipeline.
During the 2006 Tory leadership race, Stelmach vowed to curb the shipping bitumen out of the country, comparing it to "scraping off the top soil" of prime farmland, but he's yet to implement any major proposals to achieve that end.
Campaigning Saturday through regions in west-central Alberta that rely on a resource-based economy, Stelmach maintained he's still committed to creating more value-added jobs, but won't force companies to follow his wishes.
He argued Alberta will continue to upgrade between 60 and 65 per cent of its bitumen as oilsands development and processing grows.
"It's one thing to say that we're going to use a stick, but we have to carefully look at what (free trade) agreements we have in place," Stelmach told reporters while campaigning in Hinton.
"We have to be very careful how we proceed. The main thing is we have to bring our costs down and that is by getting more tradespeople, and providing the housing and infrastructure."
All the cost and growth pressures are slowing the development of oilsands processing plants in Alberta and contributing to more and more bitumen being exported, he added.
Stelmach has previously suggested the amount of bitumen processed in Alberta will rise to 72 per cent by 2016, spurred by new upgraders on the drawing board and the government's value-added plans, which are still in the works.
The Tory leader has also said it's foolish to force energy companies to upgrade all their bitumen in Alberta because it would sink the price of the product.
Alberta produces about 1.3 million barrels of bitumen per day -- with about 800,000 barrels of that, or 62 per cent, staying in Alberta, and 500,000 barrels being exported and upgraded outside Canada.
Campaigning in east-central Alberta, Liberal Leader Kevin Taft said the Progressive Conservatives have dropped the ball on the issue by failing to adopt a comprehensive value-added policy that would keep the jobs and oilsands in Alberta.
"The Tories shrugged their shoulders and they're letting Albertans' wealth go south of the border," Taft said in Wainwright. "They just let it go and it's a huge strategic opportunity (lost) for Alberta."
Taft's value-added policy, however, has raised some eyebrows.
The Liberal leader would like to see bitumen upgraded in Alberta, but said there's a benefit to shipping some of the oilsands to other provinces, rather than losing it to the United States.
But Greg Stringham, vice-president with Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, noted Albertans are receiving great benefits from the oilsands processing already occurring in the province.
He suggested the percentage of total bitumen being processed in Alberta could rise to more than 70 per cent by 2015 as the upgrading capacity comes in line with oilsands development -- about 3.5 million barrels per day.
"We're already getting great value here with the upgrading," Stringham said. "It's going to come along with the oilsands development."
Political observers, meanwhile, said the timing of the Clipper pipeline announcement is "like a slap in the face" to Stelmach because he's been so public about the issue. It also shows the Tory leader hasn't been able to persuade big oil and gas companies to follow his wishes, argued David Taras, political analyst at the University of Calgary.
"This was high on the hit parade during the leadership race and now it seems to be a forgotten policy," said Taras, suggesting the energy board's decision is another speed bump in Stelmach's campaign.
"One after another, it's become a nightmare campaign in which almost two or three times a week there's a shock to the campaign and it always seems to be bad news."
NDP Leader Brian Mason and labour groups immediately went on the offensive, arguing Stelmach is breaking one of his biggest political promises by sitting on his hands while new pipelines are built to export Alberta's crudest product.
"It's just exporting our jobs to the United States," Mason said.
He echoed protests by the Alberta Federation of Labour against $10.4 billion in new international oilsands delivery routes that the National Energy Board approved since September.
The lineup poised to enter construction includes the $5.2-billion Keystone Pipeline by TransCanada Corp., and the $3-billion Alberta Clipper and $2.2-billion Southern Lights projects by Enbridge Inc.
The Keystone project alone will export 18,000 jobs to the U.S., predicts an expert consultants' report done for the federation when it unsuccessfully fought the proposal at NEB hearings.
Among major participants in the emerging international oilsands network, EnCana Corp. ships bitumen to ConocoPhillips refineries in Texas and Illinois.
Husky Energy scrapped a planned $2.3-billion addition to its Lloydminster heavy crude upgrader and will ship its bitumen to a BP refinery in Ohio. Marathon Oil is expanding a Detroit plant to handle newly acquired Fort McMurray production.
By obtaining NEB approval of Alberta Clipper late Friday, the industry could export 1.4 million barrels a day of bitumen by 2015, or almost all forecast oilsands production growth, labour federation president Gil McGowan said.
"It won't be just raw bitumen going down those pipelines -- we'll also be losing thousands of high-paying upgrader and refinery jobs," McGowan said.
Wildrose Alliance Leader Paul Hinman, who says more upgrading incentives are needed in Alberta, questioned whether Stelmach has a plan to keep the wealth and jobs in the province.
"His platitudes and promises are hollow. He talks the talk, he never walks the walk," Hinman said in an interview. "This pipeline is shipping out our very precious natural resources and giving them to someone else to process and make all the money."
Calgary Herald, Page A1, Sun Feb 24 2008
Byline: Jason Fekete and Gordon Jaremko
The approval of a groundbreaking pipeline to take diluent from the U.S. to Alberta is being slammed by critics who also blame the provincial government for standing on the sidelines, doing nothing to prevent job loss in Alberta.
The National Energy Board (NEB) announced Tuesday the approval of the Enbridge Inc. Southern Lights pipeline project, which has an estimated pricetag of $247.5 million.
"We are very pleased that this major milestone in the project has been achieved," said Patrick D. Daniel, Enbridge president and chief executive officer, in a statement. "By increasing diluent import capacity, Southern Lights is very important to the economic development of Western Canadian crude oil production. As the NEB acknowledged, Southern Lights is an innovative and cost-effective solution to transport diluent."
However, both the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) and the national Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) are opposed to the pipeline because they say it's the last piece of a puzzle enabling other pipelines to transport Alberta resources and jobs south. Diluents are lighter hydrocarbons used to dilute bitumen and heavy oil so they can flow through pipelines.
"The Southern Lights pipeline may seem innocuous, but it's providing the lubricant that will grease the way for massive bitumen exports," said Gil McGowan, AFL president.
He added synthetic oil can be used as a diluent, but Enbridge isn't going to bother upgrading enough in Alberta, choosing instead to bring diluent up from the U.S.
"The fact that this pipeline will be used to make it easier to export jobs from Alberta seems to be entirely lost on these industry people, and it baffles me," said McGowan.
The project involves reversing the flow of Enbridge's Line 13 for the diluent, which currently transports light synthetic crude oil from Edmonton to Clearbrook, Minn. It will have a capacity of 180,000 barrels a day. Compensating for the loss of the southbound pipe are two components: one conversion and one new pipeline. A new 20-inch diluent pipeline from Chicago to Edmonton via Clearbrook is planned, subject to U.S. regulatory approvals. To replace the crude oil capacity of Line 13, a 20-inch light sour crude oil pipeline will be built from Cromer, Man., to Clearbrook.
The project broke new ground as the first application to the NEB for a pipeline to transport diluent, which the board identified as an emerging market.
Jennifer Varey, spokeswoman, explained Enbridge applied for this project in answer to customer demand as diluent supplies were beginning to dry up. Construction is anticipated to begin by the end of the year.
McGowan says the approval highlights the need for a clear plan from the provincial government to keep oilsands jobs in Alberta.
"Frankly, I'm shocked that we're halfway through a provincial election campaign, and Premier (Ed) Stelmach has yet to unveil a plan to designed to promote Alberta-based value added oilsands production."
Don Boucher, administrative vice-president of CEP western region, shared McGowan's criticism, saying the union, though "very disappointed" by the decision, wasn't surprised by it.
"We feel this board is sleepwalking through the biggest decisions in history on our energy policies for our country. This is the wrong product going to the wrong place. There must be jobs created in Canada, not delivered to the U.S."
McGowan recalled that during the Tory leadership, Stelmach said allowing companies to export raw bitumen without first upgrading or refining it in Alberta was "like a farmer selling off his topsoil." Also, Stelmach gave a mandate letter to Energy Minister Mel Knight to develop a strategy to promote Alberta-based upgrading and refining. That strategy is still outstanding.
"All Premier Stelmach, and people like Guy Boutilier and Energy Minister Mel Knight have done is stand on the sidelines. If they continue to stand on the sidelines, pretty soon the game is going to be over, and Albertans will be the losers."
By keeping the product in Canada, Boucher said it helps provide jobs and keep communities viable. It also keeps the taxes in Canada. "People have to be more informed on the decisions that are happening with their National Energy Board to really realize that it's our resources that are being shipped out of the country."
Fort McMurray Today, Page A5, Fri Feb 22 2008
Byline: Carol Christian
As a week marked by massive pre-election spending draws to a close, the $1.3-billion question facing Alberta is whether the province has the manpower -- and capacity -- to complete government's ambitious construction wish list on time and on budget.
Unions and taxpayer groups worry an overheated construction market and chronic labour shortages will cause cost overruns and delays on the flurry of projects Alberta has announced recently, including schools, hospital redevelopments and roadwork.
In the past dozen days, spending announcements made by Premier Ed Stelmach's government totalled more than $1 billion, according to a Canadian Taxpayers Federation tally of the promises.
The spending comes as government estimates $245 billion worth of megaprojects are underway or slated to move ahead in Alberta over the next two years, fuelled largely by massive expansion in the oilsands.
"It's obviously a concern to us," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"(Oilsands) projects are going to require a construction workforce of more than 200,000. These public projects are just going to make it much more difficult for contractors to find the workers they need."
But Alberta's associate minister of capital planning said the government projects are part of a long-term plan, which the province also unveiled this week, and will be staged to ensure the work is manageable.
"I don't understand the negativity," said Gene Zwozdesky. "It's not all going to happen all in one day. It's a strategic plan that takes you over a period of several years."
The comments follow the Alberta government's announcement of several big-ticket capital projects in recent days, including 14 new schools, a hospital redevelopment project in Medicine Hat and $300 million to build long-term care centres around the province.
Government announcements continued Friday, with the province unveiling millions more for initiatives like upgrading supportive living units around Alberta.
The promises come in advance of an expected provincial election call next week.
But they also come at a time when Alberta faces a labour shortage and a new Calgary Economic Development forecast suggested the problems will continue in the future. The report released this week concluded 244,000 jobs, including construction positions, could be added to this city over the next decade.
In recent years, a shortage of construction workers has delayed projects, while the rising expense of materials and labour has sent costs soaring.
The south Calgary hospital, for example, was budgeted at $550 million in 2005, but growing building costs and delays in starting the project have since pushed the price tag to $1.25 billion.
Organizations such as the Alberta Construction Association said it's difficult to know whether the recently-announced provincial projects will face similar problems since the timelines around many of the initiatives have yet to be determined.
"We haven't really got a clear sense of the timetable," said Ken Gibson, executive director of the association. "It's tough to comment."
Calgary Economic Development agreed it's difficult to know whether there will be enough construction workers without knowing the project schedules.
Adam Legge, chief economist of the organization, said construction trades are still in high demand today, even though the market isn't quite as tight as it was 18 months ago.
Other groups, like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the province will inevitably pay more for its projects. Federation officials noted the government is competing for materials and labour in a hot construction environment, with Suncor Energy announcing a giant $20-billion oilsands expansion Wednesday.
"The manner they're going about this is going to create as many problems as it will solve," said Scott Hennig of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Hennig argued a glut of government capital spending, which he said has grown from $1 billion annually in 2002 to $7 billion in the 2007-08 budget, is further inflating construction prices.
Frank Atkins, a University of Calgary economist, said he doubted the government projects would have a big impact on labour and materials, noting the initiatives are small compared with the massive Alberta construction market as a whole.
"It's small potatoes," he said.
Calgary Herald, Sat Feb 2 2008
Byline: Michelle Lang
Unions are warning Alberta's employment minister they will take the government to court if it doesn't change labour-relations rules that contravene a recent Supreme Court ruling.
The Alberta Federation of Labour -- the province's largest labour organization -- sent a letter Friday to Iris Evans asking for a meeting to discuss legislative changes. If changes are not made, unions will look for specific cases they could use to challenge Alberta labour laws in court, according to the letter sent just before Labour Day.
"And we both know a number of sections will not survive a court challenge. But there is another option," Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan wrote to the minister.
"We can work together to repair the damaged parts of the (Alberta Labour Relations) Code and other labour legislation and save Albertans the money, time and hassle of having to use the lengthy court process."
The AFL met last week with 50 senior labour leaders who represent most of Alberta's unionized work force to discuss the June Supreme Court decision that affects unions' right to collective bargaining.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that collective bargaining rights are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of association.
The landmark ruling came out of a British Columbia case but has repercussions for laws across the country.
The Alberta Federation of Labour argues there are numerous pieces of labour legislation in this province that interfere with unions' now constitutionally protected right to bargain collectively.
For instance, said McGowan, a group of carpenters who voted last month in favour of a strike still can't walk off the job because current laws group that union with another union representing labourers. The votes of both unions must be counted before either one can serve strike notice.
"The section of the labour code dealing with construction workers was designed to make it almost impossible for those workers to go on strike. Those kinds of unreasonable and unfair rules and hurdles are no longer constitutional as a result of the recent court decision," McGowan said.
Other Alberta legislation prevents provincial employees from bargaining their own pensions, and separate rules stop agriculture workers from joining unions, McGowan said.
"So basically, what the court said in this decision was that labour law in all Canadian provinces should be used to facilitate collective bargaining, not to undermine it."
A spokeswoman for Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry said the department is already working with Alberta Justice to review the Supreme Court decision and determine its implications for Alberta legislation.
Calgary Herald, Page B2, Mon Sept 3 2007
KEVIN NEWMAN: Well with so many of us returning to the habit of waking to an alarm clock again, a new survey of Canadian workers on this Labour Day showing that in spite of a booming economy in much of the country, job satisfaction is sinking. Francis Silvaggio is also on his first day back from vacation, so he seemed like the right guy to handle this one.
FRANCIS SILVAGGIO (Reporter): Alberta's economy continues to boom. There's more work, more money, more people. So why are these labour leaders concerned?
GIL MCGOWAN (Alberta Federation of Labour): We've got a growing disparity between people on the top end making a lot of money and people on the bottom end making much less. And it's not just a disparity in wages.
SILVAGGIO: In fact Graham Lowe's research discovered even though Canada's economy has grown over the past 25 year, actual job quality has declined and only about half of us are satisfied with our jobs.
GRAHAM LOWE (Employment Researcher): Because the economy is so strong these days, you might think that there would be benefits for people in terms of improvements in the quality of their workplace. We're not seeing that.
SILVAGGIO: That's no surprise to national labour groups that have seen union memberships fall sharply as well.
SID RYAN (CUPE Ontario President): They're making profits at the expense of the workers is what they're doing, and they're using globalization as the battering ram to force unions and to force employers to, employees to lower their wage demands, open up their collective agreements, give concessions.
SILVAGGIO: As the workforce begins to shift with the retirement of our baby boomers, experts say job quality will be more important than ever to keep our economy growing.
LOWE: By providing people with better quality work environments. Work environment that really encourage them, inspire them to contribute their best, that is going to improve business success. It's also going to make people want to stay with their employer so it's going to reduce turnover. It's going to reduces absenteeism, and absenteeism is trending up in this country, that's a problem. So it's going to have a lot of positive chaos for the economy overall.
SILVAGGIO: Which is why on this Labour Day, labour officials are urging all levels of government to take action.
MCGOWAN: Is this the kind of Canada that we want, that's sort of divided between the haves and have-nots. Shouldn't we be fighting for a stronger middle class Canada that allows everyone to share in the prosperity? That's the challenge for our policymakers.
GLOBAL NATIONAL, Mon Sept 3 2007
Co-operate or face court fight, trade unions tell province; Supreme Court ruling means laws now violate charter, labour federation says
EDMONTON - Unions are warning Alberta's employment minister that they will take the government to court if it doesn't change labour relations rules that contravene a recent Supreme Court ruling.
The Alberta Federation of Labour, the province's largest labour organization, sent a letter Friday to Iris Evans asking for a meeting to discuss legislative changes. If changes are not made, unions will look for specific cases they could use to challenge Alberta labour laws in court, says the letter sent just before Labour Day.
"And we both know a number of sections will not survive a court challenge. But there is another option," Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan wrote to the minister.
"We can work together to repair the damaged parts of the (Alberta Labour Relations) Code and other labour legislation, and save Albertans the money, time and hassle of having to use the lengthy court process."
The AFL met last week with 50 senior labour leaders who represent most of the province's unionized work force to discuss the June Supreme Court decision that affects unions' right to collective bargaining.
The court ruled that collective bargaining rights are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of association.
The landmark ruling came out of a British Columbia case, but has repercussions for laws across the country.
The AFL argues there are numerous pieces of labour legislation in this province that interfere with unions' now constitutionally protected right to bargain collectively.
For instance, said McGowan, a group of carpenters that voted last month in favour of a strike still can't walk off the job because current laws group that union with another union representing labourers. The votes of both unions must be counted before either one can serve strike notice.
"The section of the labour code dealing with construction workers was designed to make it almost impossible for those workers to go on strike," McGowan said.
"Those kinds of unreasonable and unfair rules and hurdles are no longer constitutional as a result of the recent court decision."
Other Alberta legislation prevents provincial employees from bargaining their own pensions, and rules stop agriculture workers from joining unions, McGowan said.
"So basically, what the court said in this decision was that labour law in all Canadian provinces should be used to facilitate collective bargaining, not to undermine it."
Senior labour lawyer Bob Blair said he can't predict if the Alberta government will change laws before unions challenge them in court.
"Certainly, the history hasn't been one of changing legislation to head off constitutional challenges. In fact, the legislation hasn't changed since 1988 in any substantial way."
Blair, who was chairman of the Alberta Labour Relations Board from 1994 to 1999, said the government has never amended laws that prevent agriculture workers from unionizing.
"Similar laws have been struck down in other provinces," said Blair, whose law firm represents trade unions and has acted for the AFL.
"The Supreme Court of Canada has clearly said that it is not permissible, and it said it several years ago and the legislation hasn't been changed."
A spokeswoman for Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry said the department is working with Alberta Justice to review the Supreme Court decision and determine its implications for Alberta legislation.
"Minister Evans has already directed her officials to prepare a plan to consult with Albertans regarding consolidation of labour legislation in the province," Lorelei Fiset-Cassidy said.
"However, there is still a significant amount of work to be done, and that will take some time."
Edmonton Journal, Page A13, Mon Sept 3 2007
Byline: Andrea Sands