The makeover of B.C. employment standards is a work in progress, the NDP says
VICTORIA — The New Democrats moved Monday to strengthen employment standards, saying those were deliberately weakened and laxly enforced under the previous B.C. Liberal government.
Labour Minister Harry Bains started the briefing for reporters on the amendments to the Employment Standards Act with a bit of a shocker: Turns out B.C. has been the last province in Canada that still permits children as young as 12 to do work that is dangerous to their health and safety.
Nor is the prospect purely hypothetical. Over the past decade, WorkSafeBC has paid out $5.2 million for injuries to workers aged 15 and under, according to the labour ministry.
Rectifying that outrage, Bill 8, the Employment Standards Amendment Act, would raise the age that a child can work to 16 from the current 12.
It would also impose additional safety restrictions for the 16-18 age bracket.
Exemptions would allow 14 and 15 year olds “to perform light work that is safe for the health and development, such as stocking shelves at a grocery store.”
There’d be other exemptions for children who work in recorded and live entertainment with parental consent. Nor are the standards intended to apply to non-employment situations, such as children doing chores on the family farm or store.
Other amendments would offer job protection, through leaves without pay, to workers escaping domestic violence or caring for critically ill family members. There’d be greater protection as well for those who get part of their income from tips, preventing employers from skimming the money or withholding it altogether.
The most ambitious changes in the bill would toughen the enforcement side, making the employment standards branch proactive in investigating workplaces as well as continuing to respond to individual complaints.
Bains noted that the toughened standards are backed up by a $14-million, three-year increase in funding for enforcement in the provincial budget. That’s enough to hire 40 new staffers this year and as many again in the next two years.
The minister is also getting rid of one of the most irksome legacies of the previous government – the self-help kit for filing employment standards complaints.
Far from making it easier to file complaints, Bains says it acted as an obstacle to doing so. Witness the halving of complaints in the years after the B.C. Liberals brought it in.
Bains discovered for himself why that would be the case during his time as an Opposition MLA. For one thing, it put employees at risk by leaving them on their own in approaching employers with a complaint.
Several times the Punjabi-born Bains tried to help constituents, for whom English was a second language, to navigate the kit. More often than not, “they gave up,” he told reporters.
This makeover of employment standards is a work in progress, said Bains. The latest changes, covering child workers, leaves of absence, recovery of wages and strengthening the branch itself, were regarded as the most in need of attention.
Still to come are potentially more far-reaching changes governing minimum hours of work, overtime and terminations.
Many of the changes in Monday’s legislation were among those recommended by the B.C. Federation of Labour in a 15-page submission to Bains back in March.
Though employment standards are crafted for the majority of workers who are not represented by trade unions, the unions have nevertheless taken a lead role in lobbying for strengthening the Act. The point being that employment standards establish a “floor” for wages, benefits, and other provisions governing the work place.
Bains, a former official with the Steelworkers-IWA union, referred to the idea of a “floor” in announcing that henceforth new collective agreements will be “subject to the minimum requirements of the Employment Standards Act.
“Start here,” in other words, when negotiating a new contract or renegotiating an existing one.
On that score it is worth noting some other areas where the B.C. Fed is hoping that Bains will establish a floor through future amendments to the Act.
On standards for hours of work and overtime the Fed recommends:
• Work schedules posted in advance. No shift changes without 24 hours notice. Minimum daily hours — four hours pay if work has started, two hours if it has not.
• Overtime to be paid after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. Right to refuse overtime.
• Double time paid if required to report for work anywhere in the mandatory 32-hour, free-from-work period. Repeal of overtime averaging.
Also in the offing from Bains are measures to improve fairness for terminated workers. Current legislation requires employers to provide notice only, but not cause for termination.
The B.C. Fed would “require employers to have just cause for terminating an employee’s employment to protect workers from unjust dismissal.” Other changes would eliminate the three-month minimum to be eligible for termination notice and pay in lieu, and bring in an expedited adjudication process for workers who have been unjustly dismissed.
Bains said those matters are still being worked on but provided no timetable for implementation.
However he will be back on his feet in the legislature Tuesday morning to drop a second, very large shoe, this time dealing with amendments to the Labour Code.
The code is the central piece of legislation governing relations between organized labour and employers in unionized workplaces. Not surprisingly, the NDP’s changes are expected to tilt the balance in favour of the union side of the equation.