Canada versus the world

Report compares employment standards

Tales of top employers providing generous family-friendly benefits are common among Canadian employers, with perks such as top ups for maternity leave, on-site fitness centres and back-up child care. Developed to attract and retain valuable employees, these programs often go above and beyond minimum employment standards.

But while Canada is considered a generous, up-to-date nation when it comes to workers’ rights and privileges, there are a few areas where it doesn’t measure up on the world stage, at least when it comes to legislation. That’s according to a paper by the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University in Montreal that takes a look at policies directed at working families in the low- and middle-income bracket.

“People always look at Canada as one of the top finishers in many areas that concern well-being, but we noticed about four major areas where Canada is really lagging behind,” said Martine Choussard, co-author and researcher at the institute. “(This report) clearly highlights where policy makers should focus their attention.”

The 73-page Work Equity Canada Index: Where the Provinces and Territories Stand examines the labour practices of 180 countries, including maternity, paternity and parental leaves, breastfeeding breaks, paid leave, overtime limits and annual leave. However, the report only focuses on minimum standards and does not factor in additional benefits provided by many employers.

“We look at the role of government in meeting the needs of working families so we look at which province has the best policies,” said Choussard. “We can only look at the minimum guaranteed standard; we can’t look at the reality.”

While firms may take the initiative to develop improved workplace policies, these voluntary efforts are unlikely to result in universal coverage for employees, states the report.

“Even when benefits to society would be significant, firms have little incentive to improve working conditions and benefits. In fact, there is often a disincentive if it means the company will have to bear the cost while its competitors may choose not to provide any coverage. Passage of legislation is thus necessary to increase the likelihood of implementation, even if the policy is not fully enforced. At a minimum, having legislation in place can support workers’ demands for better treatment.”

But most employers provide benefits because it’s the right thing to do and for attraction and retention, not because minimum standards across the board have been raised, said Kristin Taylor, a partner in the employment and labour group at Fraser Milner Casgrain in Toronto.

And employees’ appreciation of their rights is increasing significantly, said Taylor, thanks to the Internet and a better presentation of the facts.

The report cites discrepancies around childbearing issues, claiming 106 of 176 countries provide mothers with complete wage replacement during maternity leave (though the government guarantees do not always apply to every sector in these countries). Canada guarantees 55 per cent of insurable income during maternity leave (and Quebec guarantees 55 to 75 per cent). Globally, at least 31 countries provide a longer paid leave for women than Canada and 23 countries provider longer paid leave for men. Looking across the provinces, eligibility for job protection during maternity, paternity or parental leave also varies, from one year’s service to no restrictions.

The institute also highlights its concern about breastfeeding breaks, which give women the chance to pump breast milk for later use. At least 114 countries guarantee such breaks, but not Canada. And even countries that offer long maternity leaves, such as France, Italy and Australia, provide breastfeeding breaks, along with higher wage-replacement rates, said Choussard.

“It’s a question of culture and how we value breastfeeding,” she said. “If you go back to work after a shorter period of time, it’s a wonderful measure, but businesses offer it on a case-by-case basis, so it’s not as popular. It needs to be legislated.”

However, several court decisions have allowed employees to take breastfeeding breaks if needed, said Taylor.

“Frankly, given the way human rights have been interpreted in the last five to 11 years, if someone wants to breastfeed, she’s entitled to do so,” she said, though because it’s not an employment standard, this may become an issue for smaller employers. “The obligations are quite clear but it’s not set out in black and white in any statute.”

Another “gap,” according to Work Equity, concerns annual leave, as 89 countries guarantee three weeks or more of paid leave per year and 56 countries provide four or more weeks of paid vacation. But in most of Canada, workers with one year’s tenure are guaranteed only two weeks’ vacation. And in Ontario, Prince Edward Island and the Yukon, workers with 10 years of service are guaranteed only two weeks of vacation.

Sick leave is also mentioned as an area of concern, since 156 countries provide leave for sick workers and 81 of these guarantee complete wage replacement. Canada guarantees sick workers 55 per cent of their insurable income for 15 weeks and most provinces and territories do not guarantee job protection during leaves of more than 12 days.

“You can get wage replacement through the federal program but your job is not necessarily protected — that’s a major problem,” said Choussard. Only Saskatchewan (12 weeks) and Quebec (28 weeks) offer a decent duration, she said, but this is unpaid.

However, Work Equity doesn’t mention that most employers enhance these benefits through short-term or long-term disability, said Taylor. “That appears to be glossed over.”

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!