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Why B.C.'s lower-wage workers are struggling: The case for stronger employment standards

Photo from BC Gov Photos/flickr

B.C. has acquired the "distinction" of being home to Canada's largest income gap, highest poverty rate, and second-highest child poverty rate.  It also has greater employment insecurity and lower wages than the national average, even though B.C. is the province with the highest cost of living in Canada.

How has this occurred in such a rich province?

The answer is at least partially due to the low-wage policies the B.C. government has implemented in the 21st century through changes to the Employment Standards Act (ESA). These changes, beginning in 2001, represented a dramatic roll-back of worker rights.

Employment standards deal with crucial labour protections that provide rules for how employers can treat workers.  Standards on the minimum wage, hours of work, when overtime pay begins, parental leave, and provisions for vacations and statutory holidays with pay are just some of the protections ensured.

These provisions are important for everyone in the paid labour force, but they are especially necessary for vulnerable workers, who are disproportionally women, recent immigrants, temporary foreign workers, racial minorities and young people.

Looking at the minimum wage alone indicates the importance of employment standards. Statistics Canada estimates 136,000 British Columbians (7.2 per cent of the workforce) are working for minimum wages (and sometimes even less), and that nearly half of these low-waged workers (46 per cent) are employed by firms of 500 or more employees.   A growing proportion (31 per cent) are 35 years old and over. Thousands more have wages only marginally above the minimum wage.

A key piece of the government's low-wage strategy, starting in 2001, was to freeze the general minimum wage at $8 for 10 years, resulting in B.C. having the lowest minimum wage in the country. At the same time a $6 minimum wage was established for those in their first 500 hours of work, something that was aimed at teenagers, but also affected vulnerable workers such as recent immigrants. The $6 minimum wage remained unchanged for 10 years until it was finally abolished in 2011.

Starting in 2002, approximately 42 changes were made to the ESA.  Most of these changes involve reductions to employee rights and protections, and a substantial erosion of enforcement of the law.  Here are some of the most significant:

- Farm workers' wages were effectively cut by excluding them from key protections such as hours of work, overtime and statutory holiday pay, and the definition of farm work was substantially expanded to include other food processing jobs.

- Government oversight of employed children between 12 and 14 was eliminated, and children were permitted to work up to 7 hours per day and 20 hours per week, making B.C. stand out as having the youngest working age for children in the industrialized world.

- Unionized employees were excluded from the core provisions of the ESA, which means they have no access to the complaints, investigations, and enforcement and appeals provisions of the Act.

- The minimum daily shift was reduced from 4 to 2 hours, something particularly hard for those organizing child care or other part-time work.

- The 24-hour notice of a shift change was eliminated.

- Employees with a complaint no longer have quick access to an Employment Standards Officer for help.  Instead, they are required to fill out a 16-page "self-help kit" and pursue their complaint with their employer themselves before proceeding further with the Employment Standards branch. This totally discourages workers from filing complaints of violations.

- Other significant changes affecting employees' ability to get help was a 33 per cent reduction in Employment Standards Branch staff, a 47 per cent reduction in enforcement officer staff, and the closure of 50 per cent of the Employment Standards Branch offices.

These are just a sampling of the many changes that have undermined the earnings of lower-wage workers.

When these changes were introduced the government stressed they were necessary to increase 'flexibility' in the labour force and would benefit both employers and employees.  We now know with certainty that these policies have been an abject failure from the perspective of employees.  They have simply made B.C. a low-wage province and have lowered the ability of working people to provide for their own needs. The next government will need to restore enforcement of the ESA, and strengthen the law itself to ensure workers are properly protected.

This is an opinion piece that I co-wrote with David Fairey, CCPA research associate, labour economist and Co-Chair of the BC Employment Standards Coalition.

Photo from BC Gov Photos/flickr

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