Canada abusing workers’ rights: international body

But critics say Canada is still far ahead of other countries

A damning report released by an international labour organization charges that Canadian governments are stripping away fair labour practices, ultimately abusing basic workers’ rights, and reneging on international commitments to fundamental labour principles.

The report, released by the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the labour arm of the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO), tarnishes the Boy Scout image Canada has garnered from its industrialized counterparts. The report’s findings ironically fly in the face of a Canadian reputation — partly created by a whopping endorsement from the UN that the Great White North is the best place in the world to live — for being a fair labour-friendly nation. The ICFTU is calling on the World Trade Organization (WTO) and ILO to require Canada to rectify these problems and thereby restore its good standing with the international bodies.

“Our own hypocrisies are pointed out. We are used to preaching about everyone else.

“It is a challenge to us that our own record does not match up to our own behaviour and rhetoric that we have used to point the finger at others,” said Peter Warrian, an industrial relations professor at the University of Toronto.

According to the ICFTU report, Canada is guilty of “anti-union legislation and activity that undermines collective bargaining,” ongoing discrimination in the workplace despite initiatives to address these concerns, and the failure to address the marginalization and underrepresentation of First Nations people in the workforce.

Furthermore, according to the report: anti-union activity by employers is not effectively controlled, agricultural and domestic workers are almost all excluded from the right to collective bargaining, there has been illegitimate government intervention in labour disputes, and laws have been introduced that violate trade union rights.

The report has been criticized by employers and other stakeholders, who say it is riddled with factual errors and completely ignores the advancements, such as the extension of parental leave rights, made to labour practices across the country. They also claim that Canada is being unfairly targeted by the ILO while other countries are allowed to get away with much more severe labour and human rights violations.

“This report makes us sound like a banana republic and I find that completely disappointing. We are so advanced in our laws and practices that it astounds me that the bull’s-eye is on us,” said Jim Lawson, who represents the Canadian Employers Council at the ILO.

The report also points out that Canada has not yet ratified several key ILO conventions, including the Core Convention 98 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining.

But labour advocates say the report is not surprising nor are its findings considering the changes to labour laws and practices that have been unfolding across the country in the last five years — changes that have been slowly yet surely pushing the union-friendly atmosphere into obscurity, they say.

“We are going backwards and I mean going back to the last century,” said Jean-Claude Parrot, vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), an affiliate of the ILO.

“And when a country is being denounced under an organization that is under the United Nations, it is important.”

The ICFTU singles out specific jurisdictions — primarily Ontario and Alberta — for labour practice violations and it also give examples of some of the worst labour violations in recent years, in both the private and public sectors spanning the jurisdictions.

Some examples include labour strife at The Calgary Herald newspaper in 1999 and 2000, which the report states “highlighted the extent to which union activities are subject to interference by employers” in Alberta.

Ontario is also cited as an example of the “regressive” trend in labour practices and laws, which began when the Conservative regime was elected five years ago.

“In Ontario, we have a government that encourages people to go out of unions,” said Parrot, commenting on the newest round of amendments set to change the province’s labour legislation.

But others don’t see it that way. They say that changes have been made to make the process more democratic for employees and ultimately employers; to free the union grip old laws make possible.

The Ontario Labour Relations Amendment Act will require employers to post information packages about how to dissolve a union, changes the window for decertification of a union from 60 to 90 days and requires separate votes for ratification and strike action in first-contract situations.

Contrary to the ICFTU’s interpretation of these changes, the Ontario amendments give more power to the employees in deciding if they want union representation, said Ian Howcroft, vice-president of the Ontario division of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.

“These changes make it more democratic. These changes accurately allow employees to make an informed choice,” said Howcroft.

Governments are also highly criticized for their treatment of public sector unions, in particular for interfering through back-to-work legislation.

“The government often times has to work for the collective good and not only for the workplace. It’s only when third parties, whose rights are being impacted by labour strikes, are affected that the governments get involved,” said Howcroft.

In terms of discrimination against women in Canadian workplaces, the ICFTU reports that while woman account for 44 per cent of the workforce they earned only 80.5 per cent of men’s earnings in 1997. Findings from the Canadian Human Rights Commission concur, finding that 90 per cent of this wage gap between the sexes is a result of systemic discrimination aimed at women.

But while all of the major stakeholders agree Canada has been a pioneer in the area of pay and employment equity, those who agree with the authors of the report say we aren’t doing enough and are moving too slow to be affecting any real change to continue.

“We have a long way to go and we have been very slow in moving towards these goals,” said Parrot, adding that the same inaction accounts for our record with regards to treatment of First Nations people.

Whether the report will have an immediate effect is unlikely but Warrian warns that the long-term ramifications could be felt on employers’ bottom line.

“Behind this report, somewhere out there in the foreseeable future, this could be connected to trade and there may be repercussions because of our poor labour practices. In that respect, someone might be doing us a favour by drawing our attention to it now,” said Warrian.

Despite the highly critical, condemning evaluation, there was a positive side to the report. Quebec was given praise for its work at eradicating discrimination in the workplace with new legislation aimed at providing equity in access to employment in the public sector.

The ICFTU was created in 1949 and has 155 million members in 148 countries. The group has consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.

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