Time for party leaders to step up, show who’s going to be the best for public servants

OTTAWA—Many historians trace Labour Day celebrations back to the Nine Hour Movement, an international mobilization effort begun in 1872 to bring about standardized nine-hour working days. From this flowed the early legal rights that made unionization and organizing possible.

Today, workers continue to fight for basic protections across the country. Some of these battles will hopefully land on the national agenda and party platforms come the election.

New changes to the Canada Labour Code, a recent and long-overdue victory for workers, come into force on Sept. 1, just in time to mark Labour Day. These “modernization” reforms include a right to a 30-minute break, eight-hour rest period between shifts, advance notice of work schedules and shift changes, five days of personal leave, domestic violence leave, and a right to refuse overtime for family-related responsibilities. Sounds rather basic, yet sadly many federally regulated workers (which account for only six per cent of the workforce) are in industries such as broadcast, telecommunications, banking, transportation, etc., and do not currently have these protections, which are enjoyed by most workers in other jurisdictions across Canada. Without minimum standards set out in law, powerful employers have been allowed to wreak havoc on the well-being, health, and safety of workers and their families.

Although the reforms come into force on Sept. 1, some employers are criticizing the speed and scope of the legislation. And without greater political pressure from the public, the federal government may simply permit broad categories of workers to continue to toil under regressive and dangerous conditions if exemptions are granted. Every political party needs to take a clear position on where they stand with respect to the rights of federally regulated workers.

Every leader running for the job of prime minister must be ready to step up as a compassionate and caring employer of public sector workers. As the single largest employer in Canada, the federal government employs just less than 300,000 employees who are governed by their own set of employment legislation, which do not include any minimum employment standards, or collective bargaining rights for staffing and pension issues; it is one of the largest contributors to the precarious work conditions through casual and term contracts, eroding one’s ability to eke out a decent living. One place to start would be bringing much needed modernization reforms to the legislations that govern public sector workers. Another is to take responsibility and finalize long awaited collective agreements, including proper compensation for the damage done by the Phoenix not-pay system.

The agonizing toll a disastrous pay system has had on public service workers, some of whom have still not been paid correctly and others who have lost their homes and savings, should be front of mind this election. Anyone looking to take the reins of the federal government must be prepared to speak to how they, as an employer, will ensure the dignity of federal sector workers, including those currently outsourced.

The federal government directly and indirectly employs countless other workers, including consultants, contractors, and a growing and precarious class of temporary help service workers, dubbed the “Shadow Public Service.” It sound like something out of a Jordan Peele movie, and frankly, it is as horrifying. Temporary help service workers, for instance, are significantly undercompensated, left without benefits or job security, and often work for multiple employers, none of whom on paper are the federal government. It is next to impossible for them to organize and have a collective voice. All while they carry out the work of the federal government. In fact, the House of Commons Human Resources Committee tabled a report on reducing precarious work in June 2019, but there has been silence from the government to date.

Fair wages for federal contractors is another Liberal promise not yet realized. The Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act, which came in in 1935, was repealed in 2012 by the Harper Conservatives following the lobbying efforts of non-unionized contractors. Now the federal government is permitted, if not induced, to hire the lowest-paying contractors for government-funded projects, rather than taking up the mantle of creating good jobs that ensure workers’ dignity. Not all job creation is created equal.

More broadly, increasing privatization generally has come at a cost to workers. Privatization of heating and cooling plants, ports, and other previously held public institutions are being handed over to private interests, and with them better paying and more secure public sector jobs.

And Baby Boomers wonder why their university-educated children can’t get a career off the ground.

Hundreds of thousands of workers will be directly impacted by the outcome of the federal election. Their issues are not often front of mind, but they ought to be. Federal and public sector workers need a government that is on their side, and one that will not hesitate to push back against employers who are trying to keep workers rights in the 1800s.

Amy Kishek co-hosts the Bad+Bitchy podcast and is an in-house labour lawyer for a national union.

As published in The Hill Times.