B.C. criticized over labour laws

UN agency critical of province's breach of international agreements on collective bargaining

The United Nations says the B.C. government is violating basic collective bargaining rights — the government says it doesn’t matter.

The International Labour Organization, an agency of the UN, rebuked the government of British Columbia for breaching international agreements on collective bargaining.

The conduct for which B.C. was admonished dates back to 2001 and early last year, when six pieces of legislation were passed that tore up contracts and imposed restrictions on collective bargaining in the health and education sectors.

These pieces of legislation constituted “an interference by the authorities in the regular bargaining process,” wrote the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association, adding that “any exercise by the public authorities of their prerogatives in financial matters which hampers the free negotiation of collective agreements is incompatible with the principle of freedom of collective bargaining.”

The unions bringing these complaints to the ILO said together these bills violated ILO conventions and freedom of association principles, and created a situation that encouraged employers not to use collective bargaining procedures, but to wait instead for laws to impose their concession demands.

The bills affected 150,000 workers in health, social services and education. Together, the enacted bills effectively forced health-care workers to stop lawful work action, imposed the employer’s latest offers as contract in a number of negotiations, voided previously negotiated contract rights for health and social-services workers, and barred education workers from taking work action by deeming education an essential service.

In its findings, the committee issued non-binding recommendations for the province to repeal the law making education an essential service. Where limitations were needed on the right to strike, the committee added, B.C. should compensate workers for such limitation with conciliation and arbitration proceedings.

Further, the committee “requests the government to refrain from having recourse in future to legislatively imposed settlements, and to respect the autonomy of bargaining partners in reaching negotiated agreements.”

Premier Gordon Campbell, responding to the ruling, told reporters: “We said in the election we were going to do this and that is what we have done. I feel no pressure whatsoever. I was not participating in any discussion with the UN.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour, Betty Nicholson, said Labour Minister Graham Bruce has begun looking into a discussion process with unions and employers “to see if there is a different way of conducting public-sector bargaining.”

“In British Columbia, over the last 10 years, there has not been one contract in the education sector that government had not had to step in and reach a decision on behalf of the parties. The way public-sector bargaining has been conducted has not been successful, no matter which government was in power,” she added, quoting the minister.

She said the government has no intention to re-open any of the contracts. Such responses angered union leaders like Jim Sinclair president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.

“This ruling says that the British Columbia government is trampling on the rights of workers and breaking the international labour standards that the federal government has agreed to. It’s a very significant ruling, because it’s not just about one case. What we have is a pattern of six cases in a 12-month period of systematically overturning basic rights enshrined by the United Nations,” said Sinclair.

“The question is, is the government going to thumb its nose at international law? It would be highly hypocritical given the fact the province is in a battle with the United States over softwood lumber, and it’s saying ‘Please follow international law.’”

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