Labour comes to the employer's table

Tripartite consultation and involvement in international labour agency on the agenda.

Ottawa is urging business to adopt an international labour standard that could lead to mandatory consultations between government, labour and business on issues of policy.

A convention, created by a U.N. labour agency, could mean governments, employers and labour representatives would be mandated to consult with each other on labour and business issues.

If ratified, the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 144 would have to be incorporated into existing legislation and regulations on consultation processes in Canada.

“This is a priority convention, which requires member states to establish and follow procedures for effective consultations with unions and employers on (labour) matters,” said federal minister of labour Claudette Bradshaw, in an address to the Canadian Employers Council (CEC) last month. She called for the co-operation of the group to ratify the agreement and added that the federal government will be holding consultations with employers over the next few months.

But Convention 144 is a contentious issue for employers. Jim Lawson, president of the CEC and the Canadian employer representative at the ILO, said concerns centre on the regulatory burdens and costs employers could incur if Canada signs the agreement. Ratifying the agreement could make tripartite consultation mandatory for matters where labour and employers have a stake.

“Ratifying this agreement would institutionalize the consultation process. Employers feel that it is giving power to unions who do not represent the majority of citizens. It will cause the country to rethink current legislation and regulations.”

The convention itself is vague and signing countries decide how to revise their current legislation and practices to make sure they are not contravening the convention. Some countries have implemented the agreement by opening up labour consultation to unions on matters such as setting wages while others have implemented simple consultation processes.

In addition, said Lawson, there already exists a tripartite consultation process that permeates Canadian labour relations.

“We already have an informal consultation process that is efficient. So there is a spirit of consultation that is surely taking place in Canada,” said Lawson, citing his own work with his labour counter-part at the ILO, which involves working closely together to reach agreement on Canada’s international commitments and presenting it to the provinces.

But Bradshaw wants Canada to follow the lead of other world leaders and sign the convention.

“Convention 144 has been ratified by over 100 countries, including the United States, and I believe that Canada should be counted among them,” said Bradshaw.

It was the first time the CEC has invited a labour minister to address the group.

“She really is interested and it’s quiet a breath of fresh air,” said Lawson. “Whether we agree with them or not we certainly need to be plugged in. In some ways this is how we are trying to foster a positive spirit of tripartite communication, by having the other members at our table to dialogue.”

Some 60 members of the CEC, an umbrella group representing 65 per cent of Canadian employers, were on hand to hear the minister speak and to ask her questions. Attendees were fed a taste of labour’s agenda from Bradshaw and labour heavyweight Jean-Claude Parrot, vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), who followed the minister’s address.

On the agenda was Canada’s role in the ILO. Bradshaw noted the work of Canadian representatives at the international agency and the impact they’ve had in formulating and contributing to the global discussion on labour.

Bradshaw commended the work of the group and the CLC, the labour representative at the ILO, for their work at the international agency. Last year Canada ratified Convention 182, the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. She is also awaiting formal approval by the provinces in order to ratify Convention 29 on forced labour. The provinces must agree to ratify a convention in order to adopt an ILO convention.

“Our involvement in international labour issues is expanding. I believe we need to continue improving dialogue between government, business and labour on international issues,” she said.

Parrot, Canadian labour representative at the ILO, delivered a strong message to the attendees about the force of Canadian labour.

But he was positive about continued co-operation with business leaders on labour matters, both at home and on the international front.

“We’re not on the same side but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together.”

But he also said that labour would continue to mount aggressive campaigns to ensure the rights of workers, in Canada and around the world, are recognized and respected. He cited a number of laws that currently contravene Canada’s commitments to certain ILO conventions.

“For us, labour rights are human rights and as such they are not negotiable.”

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