Labour policy lurch continues in British Columbia, more protections needed for workers

May 3, 2022 | 42-3, Bills, Blog, Governance, Legislature, Video | 0 comments

For decades labour policy has lurched back and forth. This is a result of a legislative assembly previously split by two establishment political parties, BC NDP and BC Liberals, aligning as pro-labour and pro-business respectively.

This has not benefited workers or business owners. Neither of these entrenched “sides” of the debate have had to do much for those they claim to represent other than trot out time-tested rhetoric.

As the BC NDP government, through Bill 10, amends the Labour Relations Code to remove the secret ballot and have a single-step union certification process, like they have done when they were government in the past, they have abandoned worker protection on numerous fronts. No more egregious than the workers compensation program.

If the BC NDP want to maintain the ground they staked long ago as the party for the worker and working class, they are going to need to do much more than they have done in the 5 years since they formed government.

[Transcript]

I’m pleased to stand and speak to Bill 10, the Labour Relations Code Amendment Act, 2022. It’s important that I create the appropriate frame for this speech. Protecting workers’ rights is a critical responsibility of all the members of this Legislative Assembly. It doesn’t matter the colour of the banner behind your name or the party you’re affiliated with. It’s the role of this provincial government to protect workers and to stand up for their rights.

Last week we recognized the National Day of Mourning for workers who have been injured and who have died on the job. We heard speakers from all parties acknowledge the right of workers to make it home safely at the end of the day. We heard support across the aisle for workers who survived a workplace accident to get better support in their recovery and their rehabilitation. Standing here speaking to this Bill 10, it’s those workers that I have in my mind and in my heart.

It’s unfortunate that I have to say this, but I can’t think of a better issue to drag this Legislature back into the tired, binary debate of labour policy that has been going on in this province for decades. This bill is pretty straightforward, and it does, essentially, two things. It creates a single-step union certification process, removing the secret ballot, and it changes the rules allowing construction workers to change unions every year.

[4:45 p.m.]
Frankly, as I’ve listened to the arguments that have been put forward in this Legislature, I feel the best arguments, actually, to vote against this bill have been made by the members of the government themselves. Especially, I listened with interest to the speech from the minister. Unfortunately, the speech, in many places, contradicted itself.

The minister failed to provide examples of why moving from the vote to a card check is necessary. He said that he has example after example of unlawful lawyer interference in the organizing process, and then decided not to share them with us.

He outlined the panel report, which informed changes made to the code in 2019, when we reduced the number of days workers in the certification process had to wait to cast their secret ballot from ten days to five days. The panel advised government to stick with the secret ballot, unless it could be demonstrated that unlawful interference continues.

Back then, the minister was prepared to make the change from secret ballot to card check, despite the advice against the move from the expert panel he appointed. Now he states that he’s following the advice of the panel, that he has the evidence, but the minister decided not to provide it for the members of this House or for the people of British Columbia.

If he indeed has examples — “examples after examples,” which is a quote — if the data is in the government’s favour, then you would think that they would just roll it out here for us to see in the many debates that we have had in this place. But, no.

Instead, they stand here and deliver excruciating speeches wandering around the topic, talking and bringing up things that have been brought up for the last 30 or 40 years in this province, because they know that no matter what at the end of this debate, they’re going to use the majority government to pass and to change, once again, as we’ve seen happen, the policy lurch — swinging back and forth. I can be persuaded on this issue, but I think that the members, from government’s own arguments, have done more damage to the cause than they have of explaining why it is that we need to do this now.

From what I understand, the change is actually going to have marginal impact. There is about a 9 percent increase in certification with card check, as opposed to the current secret ballot method. If the minister stood in here and said the nature of work is changing, if he showed the examples of the local and multinational corporations who hire tens of thousands of low-paid front-line workers using their power to thwart labour organizing and block workers’ constitutional right to association, that would be one thing.

If he talked about the examples of Walmart and Starbucks and the recent news from Freshii, if the minister stood in here and said, and the members of government stood in here and said, that these multinational tech companies are disrupting established marketplaces and established workforces, the gig economy has turned millions of workers into independent contractors with few or no rights, few or no benefits, and those workers need the protection of unions, it would be one thing.

If he took time to highlight the dramatic changes in the working conditions caused by the pandemic, if he spoke to the 5.5 million Canadian workers who lost their job or had their hours cut, the low-wage workers who have consistently been the hardest hit, not just by job losses but by the COVID-19 infections and, indeed, COVID-19 deaths…. But that’s not how this debate has been framed.

This debate has not been framed around the fact that 87 families have more wealth than the bottom 12 million Canadians combined, that we’re facing inflationary pressures unseen in decades, that while this government celebrates increases to the minimum wage, the reality is that $15.20 per hour is far less than what a living wage would be for most British Columbians.

[4:50 p.m.]
If unions are able to secure better wages and working conditions for workers, the conditions being what they are in our society, even a marginal 9 percent improvement in union certification should be seriously considered. That is a compelling argument for change. Not arguments that are being made here, though.

But I don’t get a sense that these are the reasons why this government or this minister is making the change. Considering the fact that I was a part of the discussion previously, when the government was consider making this change even when the expert panel suggested against it. Now this argument is being brought forward that there is evidence that it need be made.

But, again, I point out that none of it was laid out clearly by the minister in defence of this bill. Instead what we’ve got is language around what we’ve seen in this province for decades, which is how this policy has swung back and forth depending on the brand of political ideology that is sitting on the government side of the benches. We hear arguments that have been collecting dust for decades. Arguments that were used in the 1990s and arguments that were used previous to that.

Because workers’ rights are actually separate, in many respects, to the interests that big unions have. That needs to be named in here. Workers deserve better than this kind of debate in this Legislature, because workers in this province have real challenges. Workers in this province probably expected this B.C. NDP government to actually look out for their interests. The B.C. NDP actually have failed on so many of their commitments to protect the rights of workers, it begs the question: is this government really up to the task to be representative of the working class?

The B.C. NDP, over the last five years, have proven to be a worker camp, a man camp party. A defender of the multinational corporation, handing billions of public taxpayer money…. Many of the same ways that they were critical of the previous government for doing.

In some respects, this is a performance. This Labour Relations Code amendment is a performance, one that was promised earlier in the former government and wasn’t able to be delivered. It’s now finally…. The majority government is going to be able to ensure the smooth procedure here as we go through this debate. But it’s a small action to protect workers. Remember, it’s a 9 percent increased certification.

Meanwhile, there are many ways that this B.C. NDP government could be showing British Columbian workers that they are indeed up to the task to protecting their rights. I know that members of the B.C. NDP are going to view this as sort of an existential attack. How dare anyone ever question the NDP, with their roots growing through Tommy Douglas and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation? No one ever dare challenge the NDP as a worker labour party.

But an honest person must take the time to reconcile the many ways that the B.C. NDP have abandoned workers on many fronts. I wonder what the tens of thousands of minimum wage front-line workers that went to work every day, facing COVID-19, when this B.C. NDP government delivered half of the number of sick days that are the OECD standard. Those workers are the most marginalized and the most vulnerable to getting or dying from COVID. I wonder if they feel that this government has been standing up and protecting workers.

I wonder if the tens of thousands of front-line health care workers feel that this government has…. When this government abandoned the well-known, decades-old public health measures like quality well-fitting masks, protecting them from a virus, an airborne virus, from overwhelming their health care facilities…. I wonder if they feel that this government has been standing up and protecting them?

[4:55 p.m.]
I wonder if the tens of thousands of teachers feel that this government who failed to provide the most basic air circulation, ventilation and purifications in classrooms across this province…. I wonder if they feel that this government over the last number of months and years has had their backs.

Then there’s the particularly troubling reality of Stephanie Cadieux, who tabled pay equity legislation a half-dozen times, and then had to resign her seat to get it debated for one hour on one day. I hope that this government’s House Leader makes sure that we finish the debate of that private member’s bill. Although, I’m not confident.

The best that our B.C. NDP government could muster on pay equity legislation was a promise to consult about pay equity more.

Deputy Speaker: Member, of course, legislation before the House is to be debated in that forum, not in this forum. We’re currently debating Bill 10. Thank you.

A. Olsen: Thank you for the reminder, Mr. Speaker.

The minister stood in here last week and repeated time and again the rhetoric of a good worker party. That’s what a lot of worker protections in this province have amounted to: rhetoric. The right is enshrined in the Canadian constitution. Charter of Rights and Freedoms for all Canadians, our right to association — that the right should not be impeded by anyone. Allowing workers a voice. We think workers should be safe. All of these key words are important for workers to hear.

I understand that this isn’t a Workers Compensation Act amendment, but if this government believes that workers should be safe, then they would act on the many recommendations of their own advisers — ones that were put forward to protect injured workers. Janet Patterson’s report, New Directions — the report on WCB review from 2019. Paul Petrie’s 2018 report, Restoring the Balance: A Worker-Centred Approach to Workers’ Compensation Policy. And the addendum, Claim Suppression: The Elephant in the Workplace. Ombudsperson of B.C. Jay Chalke’s report, Severed Trust: Enabling WorksafeBC to Do the Right Thing When Its Mistakes Hurt Injured Workers.

Too many of those recommendations languish in the background — that undermine this government’s commitment to workers. Recommendations that include the following. Workers compensation must be worker centred. The compensation board must be more accountable to injured workers. Each injured worker must be treated fairly and as an individual with patient-centred medical care. Worker-employer communication must be improved, and more resources published to help people to navigate the system. Better assistance to get workers back to safe and meaningful work, and easier to correct unfair decisions.

We had that act open in this session to address important issues about creating strict policy for asbestos. This was important to make workers safe. But it was not enough.

That’s what actually undermines all of the arguments that are made here by the government side saying: “We’re here to protect workers.” The actual things that protect workers, the actual tough conversations, the ones that admittedly people have said these are not going to be easy — those ones — they’re languishing in the background.

It would be nice to see the government use the same power that they’re exerting to bring this one through to bring in some of those recommendations that have been languishing for far too long. We know that labour relations policy is challenging. Government has a responsibility to develop fair and balanced policy. Strict oversight and enforcement of the rules. Robust rehabilitation, and a fair compensation system to protect workers’ rights.

For Bill 10, when we get to committee stage, I hope that the minister shares with us example after example, cases after cases. The mountain of instances that he suggested of illegal employer interference into the union certification process. I think it would benefit the quality of this debate for us to see what has changed from when the panel that the minister appointed suggested not right now: “Don’t do this work right now, but if it gets worse, then do it.”

[5:00 p.m.]

Presumably, that’s what this is built on, or what it should be built on, if we are working in an evidence-based…. Taking advice from the experts. I would be interested to understand how the ministry and the Labour Relations Board has fared in investigating the mountain of cases of illegal interference. It would be important for us as a body here to learn how the board has enforced those violations of worker’s charter and constitutional rights.

Has the board and the ministry taken any other remedial action to stop this trend of illegal employer interference in the union certification process that’s overseen by the board? And by the same token, has the government taken any remedial action to stop the trend of illegal employer interference in workers’ rights to claim compensation, as documented in Petrie’s 2002 claim suppression report?

Because until that information is on the table, it feels like we’re just jumping straight to changing the legislation without anybody in government actually feeling like they need to outline that the problem has gotten worse, and to be specific. Because it’s curious that the minister has chosen to stay general in his comments on this bill, when specificity actually would have really sold us on this. It is important that details are important in this.

Employer intervention. Injury claim suppression. The need for a worker-centric culture at WorkSafeBC. The warnings have been delivered with little action since 2017. This ministry has not been the architect of reform. They’ve delivered modest changes — tinkering — largely as token gifts to unions and the B.C. Federation of Labour.

I think that actually, this B.C. NDP government, from what I have seen over the last five years in this place, has taken their position and their relationship with workers for granted. I think that they’ve taken their role in this Legislature as the de facto voice for the workers for granted.

When you have so many recommendations, so much of the hard work languishing on the sidelines for a long time, when you’re opening the bill up repeatedly, over and over and over again, to make adjustments to it without taking a crack at the really tough recommendations that have been laid out, when you see worker injury suppression claims increasing in this province and not doing anything about it — it sends a message that there’s a feeling that there’s no one else.

The members of the official opposition — they’re never going to be able to represent workers, because we’ve created this narrative in this province, that how dare they even raise it. This is offside for them to raise it. For 16 years, they’ve been evil. So there is actually little tension in this place to do the big things. The difficult stuff. I hope we can create some of that tension, because the last thing that workers in this province need is their rights to be taken for granted. So I will be very, very interested to engage this bill as it goes through the rest of this debate and watch and learn of the examples to understand what’s changed since 2019.

To give the minister the opportunity, which he didn’t take in the second reading stage of the debate, to outline what’s changed, and to give this NDP government an opportunity to really ensure that the workers in this province are seeing good value from a government that has, over decades, staked a claim to this territory, and made it nearly impossible for anybody else to even talk about it without being thoroughly and utterly criticized, because you don’t carry the banner and you haven’t been part of that labour movement or you haven’t been part of that party.

[5:05 p.m.]
So my hope is that we get a chance to see that information. With that, thank you for the opportunity to speak to Bill 10.

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