Labour code improvements long overdue: Why is the Alberta government putting them off?

The Labour Day weekend offers Albertans one last gasp at summer before the busy times of fall are upon us. And we should all take a well-deserved rest. When you work hard, like Albertans do, you deserve a moment to relax and appreciate your hard work.

I only wish I could say the same thing for the Alberta government. On the employment standards file, their inaction has become an embarrassment.

The Employment Standards Code is the law that sets up the basic protections for workers in the workplace, setting such things as minimum wage, hours of work, vacation entitlement and so on. Alberta's Employment Standards Code has remained essentially unchanged since 1988.

The workplace has evolved significantly in the last 20 years, but our law has not. The government recognized how out-of-date the legislation is and back in 2005 launched a massive consultation to revamp the code.

Yet, nothing came of it. Not a single amendment. Not a single improved provision. Complete inaction. The consultation just faded away.

Admittedly, employment law can be controversial. Employers and workers have justifiably different visions of what the code should look like. So maybe the government decided to avoid the heat and leave it as is. A little cowardly, maybe, but understandable given how politics works.

However, the Alberta Federation of Labour recently received a document through Freedom of Information that suggests government inaction cannot be pinned on Alberta's workplace participants.

We fought for two years to get access to a public opinion survey conducted during the consultation about what employers and workers thought about the employment standards code. The Commissioner ordered its release this summer. The fact the government witRating 2eld for more than two years a document as simple as a poll is a telling statement about accountability and freedom of information in this province, but that is another column.

The results of the survey, which randomly polled 400 employers and 400 workers across Alberta, are surprising. On most issues raised, employers and workers agreed on what needed to happen, and overwhelming the message is that our basic employment laws need to change.

For example, 77 per cent of employers and 82 per cent of workers said that the code should provide for unpaid general leave for workers needing to tend a family emergency, attend a funeral or care for a sick relative. A majority of both groups (56 per cent and 68 per cent, respectively) believe workers should be paid for statutory holidays, even if it falls on their day off. Neither provision is in the code currently.

The agreement even extended to the so-called "controversial" issues such as 12-year-olds working and farmworker exemptions to the code.

Albertans will remember that in 2005, the Alberta government changed the rules to allow children as young as 12 to work in restaurants. A majority of both employers (56.5 per cent) and workers (50.2 per cent) stated they thought the government was going in the wrong direction on this issue -- saying that kids as young as 12 were too young to be employed. It is particularly interesting to note employers were more opposed to 12-year-olds working than workers were.

In the case of farmworkers, the Employment Standards Code currently excludes this group of workers from most protections. Farmworkers have no right to a minimum wage, to limits on hours of work, to overtime pay or to statutory holiday pay. They also are not protected by the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Only 15 per cent of employers and 16 per cent of workers believe these exemptions are fair. The vast majority of Albertans want some or all of the exclusions removed. In other words, Albertans appreciate that farmworkers have as much right to basic protections as the rest of us. The poll also revealed Albertans want some consideration for family farms, demonstrating they know the difference between a small family operation and a big industrial farm.

Too bad the Conservatives can't see the difference.

I could go on and on with evidence from the poll, but the overall message is clear -- Albertans want the government to move on updating the code and fixing its more glaring inequities. So why haven't they?

I don't believe governments should govern by poll, but this is not a case of being driven by polling. The changes Albertans are asking for also make good sense. They are fair and reflect the modern realities of work in Alberta. And how often do you get employers and workers agreeing about things?

On the issue of employment standards, Albertans are way out in front of their government. The Conservatives need to snap out of their summer slumber and fix the Employment Standards Code. We need to see amendments to the code in the upcoming fall sitting.

It is time to bring our code into the 21st century and up to the level that Albertans expect.

Edmonton Journal, Mon Sept 1 2008
Byline: Gil McGowan

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