` Columbia Journal - Government Changes
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Government changes to ESA, WCB, Labour Code
BY DAN KEETON - Citing an alleged need to be "competitive" on world markets, the provincial Liberal government in May enacted sweeping changes to legislation governing workplace health and safety, and workers' rights.

Organized labour was quick to attack Bills 42, 48 and 49 which amend the BC Labour Relations Code, Employment Standards and Workers' Compensation acts, charging that the government is unravelling decades of progress in labour legislation.

"It's an employer bill of rights that won't modernize the economy, but take it back to the days of absolute employer control over hours, working conditions and employee rights, said Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour. "This is a massive transfer of power and money from workers to employers."

The three amending bills, said Sinclair, "will reduce limits on overtime, cut benefits if you're injured and make it much harder to join a union if you want to bargain to achieve some fairness."

The Workers Compensation Act sets the rules for the provincial Workers Compensation Board, which decides on benefits for employees injured on the job. Employment Standards establishes the provincial minimum standards for benefits, work hours and working conditions, and is generally seen as protecting workers not covered by union agreements. The BC Labour Code is administered by the provincial Labour Relations Board, and mainly covers situations involving unionized workers.

Under the two previous New Democratic administrations, changes improving the lot of workers were introduced into these areas, tipping the balance away from employer-friendly legislation during the Socred days. BC's Liberal government, heavily backed by business forces, is reversing those developments, critics charge.

For the labour code, changes to the "purpose section" of the Act which will require adjudicators to be more sympathetic to employer interests, including taking into account so-called ability to afford wage and benefit hikes.

The amendments also allow a much greater degree of employer involvement during union organizing drives.

In Employment Standards, the reduction of minimum daily hours of work to two from four, the possibility of working 80-hour weeks with no overtime pay and removal of safeguards on child labour.

The reduction of injured workers' WCB benefits, which were based on 75 per cent of gross income. The new Act changes that to 90 per cent of net income, which would chop a middle-wage earner's benefits by well over $200 per month.

The hours of work provisions in the amended Employment Standards Act envision an employer and employee one-on-one "averaging" agreement to work longer hours in a given week in exchange for greater time off later. "These agreements effectively allow employers to side step overtime, the forty-hour week and the eight-hour day," the BC Fed observes.

And this change ignores the true power relations between the boss and workers, says the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "The notion that individual workers and employers can voluntarily agree to 'mutually beneficial' employment agreements is based on a false assumption that the relationship between workers and employers is equal," stated the CCPA's BC office in its submission to the Employment Standards review. "In particular, vulnerable and marginal workers…would feel tremendous pressure to accept such agreements."

Regarding child labour, the Fed notes, "The new Act will take away the current restrictions on working children under 15 years old by eliminating the control that the Director of Employment Standards was required to exercise. Only parental permission is now required, a move that could put children at risk of economic exploitation."

The former Labour Code laid some ground rules on what employers could say to their workers regarding union membership, especially around threats or bribery.

That so-called "right to communicate" is more like a right to intimidate, said labour lawyer Diane MacDonald. She noted the Liberals had already eliminated the automatic certification rule whereby a union was recognized if more than 55 per cent of employees signed union cards. A confirmation vote is now required in all union drives, allowing employers time to intimidate workers into rejecting union membership.

Reviews of these areas of labour legislation during the NDP's tenure took months of hearings across the province prior to the enactment of changes. In contrast, the Liberals allowed one month for submissions.

In justifying its reform of the Labour Code, Minister of Skills, Development and Labour Graham Bruce cited the need for BC business to compete. "These changes…say that B.C. is open for business…This will provide greater protection for employees' [sic] by ensuring that job security and viability of the business are considered in LRB decisions," said the minister in a May release.

He claims ESA changes were necessary to "encourage flexible workplace partnerships," states a government release. The WCB reforms, which are estimated to save employers some $300 million in premium reductions annually, are to make the system more "responsive" to worker and employers needs.

Several critics have taken issue with the government's claim that such measures were enacted to make BC employers more competitive.

Trade union economist David Fairey cited a study by the management consulting firm KPMG showing BC is already the most cost-competitive jurisdiction in the region. "The labour cost comparisons between West Coast cities reveal that all seven BC cities surveyed (Vancouver, Victoria, Chilliwack, Kamloops, Nanaimo, Prince George and Kelowna) have significantly lower overall labour costs than the seven U.S. West Coast cities surveyed (San Jose, Seattle, San Bernardino, Sacramento, Las Vegas, San Diego and Portland, OR)."

"'Competitiveness'," said labour lawyer MacDonald, "is a euphemism for fewer employee protections. A focus on competitiveness will shift the labour relations framework away from employee protection, to the protection of business interests."

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