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Opinion

New labour laws must implement, not just describe, rights for workers

Published on 26/04/2017

The opportunity to change the laws that could affect nearly everyone working in Ontario doesn’t come along very often. In fact, some are calling the Changing Workplaces Review a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Recognizing and updating our idea of what it means to be employed – and to set employment standards that reflect what employment looks like today – must certainly be one of the major aims of this review of the Labour Relations Act, 1995 and the Employment Standards Act, 2000. As its title suggests, the review recognizes the changing nature of work and employment relationships. It is no longer the norm that jobs are full-time, stable, or come with benefits or pensions. It is no longer even a given that workers will know their schedule more than a day in advance, or that their employer is the manager in the office next to their desk, instead of a third-party agency that has contracted them out and collects part of their paycheque each week.

The rise of precarious work and destructive practices such as third-party contracting has serious economic, social and health consequences for workers. Research indicates that precarious workers are more likely than those in stable employment to report mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Further, researchers have documented the negative effects of precarious work on family relationships and marital conflict.

The final recommendations of the Changing Workplaces Review are expected to come out after the 2017 Ontario budget is released on April 27. What should we be looking for? And how do we make the most of it?

The review is an opportunity to reframe how we think about employment standards in the first place. How we talk affects how we think, and a “standard” suggests a good practice, something that we “should” do. We must move beyond the idea of employment standards and think about how employment is related to the social and economic rights that are inherent in all workers and, indeed, in all people. Social and economic rights allow us to live in dignity and participate fully in society. They include rights related to the workplace, social security, and access to an adequate standard of living.

All of us have rights – social, economic, political and civil – and our laws must support their realization. The challenge is to make good on our laws, to ensure that rights are not just elegant words on a piece of paper, but that people will see and feel them in their everyday lives.

Of course, the government is not the only actor responsible for rights. No one may oppress the human rights of others. Employers cannot disregard nor infringe on the rights of employees – and the government must monitor and prevent violations by using instruments such as labour laws.

For that to happen, we need to keep our eye on what matters. And what matters is not only the new minimum standards that the laws and regulations will describe, but also how they will be implemented and enforced. We need to ask serious questions of our legislators and policy-makers: How will workers experience these changes? How will employers be held accountable in a transparent way? What investments do we need to make to ensure that laws and regulations are enforced? In other words, how do we avoid the implementation gap that is all too common with good policy ideas?

Certainly, many employers are responsible and meet all of their legal obligations. Good employers recognize that decent work is good for business. These employers already exceed our current standards by, for example, paying a living wage and offering paid sick days as a matter of course. The employers in the Better Way to Build the Economy Alliance are small- and medium-sized businesses that have figured out that, far from hurting their business, providing decent working conditions results in healthier, better-rested and less-stressed employees, which in turn increases employee engagement, productivity and loyalty. The resulting decrease in staff turnover and the fostering of stable, settled working environments are in everybody’s interest.

Unfortunately, we can’t rely on the good business sense of other employers to follow their examples. Even good businesses make mistakes or can be taken in by the misconception that decent working conditions are too costly. Further, while bad employers are the exception, we know that they exist and the consequences of their poor employment practices can be devastating. These are businesses that pay low wages, refuse to provide firm schedules, or fire people at the end of a pay period and don’t pay them the wages they are owed. Just as we need a criminal justice system to deal with the small minority of people who commit crimes, we need a robust employment rights system to deal with the employers who mistreat workers and, in so doing, depress local economies and exert downward pressure on responsible employers.

We have now the opportunity to do more than update our ideas about employment and protecting our economic and social rights. To make the most of this opportunity, we must go beyond simply describing these ideals in our laws. The government needs to support these rights by setting out a clear and realistic path to implementing them in the everyday lives of workers. We must have a commitment to investing in enforcement to ensure that our rights are not violated.

Summary

The Changing Workplaces Review is an opportunity for us to implement and enforce social and economic rights so that workers experience them in their everyday lives.

Topic(s)

Employment and labour, Human rights