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  • Volume Eight, Number Five: July 2003

    Back to school: Workers Rights Courses

    Next week is back to school week for hundreds of thousands of students—not just grade school, but for post-secondary as well.

    However, many of those students, mostly younger people, hit hard by crippling BC Liberal tuition fee hikes, as the government moves on its unexpected, but rapid, privatization agenda, will be relying more than ever on largely low-paying part-time work to help them cope with this new austere condition.

    “This is one reason why it’s more important than ever to ensure that non-union workers, especially youth, get to know their rights on the job,” says Alex Grant, a student and community activist who has been teaching forums on people’s rights under the employment Standards Act. “The changes the government has made to the Act means you have fewer rights, so it’s especially important that you know what those rights are.”

    Grant has been conducting public education classes and information tables around the lower mainland on employee rights throughout the summer. The Western Region of the Communication Energy and Paperworkers Union hired him after it was awarded a grant from the federal Human Resources development Canada to fund a project to educate non-union workers about their on-the-job rights.

    Despite being a relatively small venture, Grant says the workshops and outreach were largely successful.

    “We had lots of workers come up to us with problems they were having with their jobs,” he said. “We would discuss them and what they could do about them, and then they went off and did it.”

    He adds there is a huge appetite among the general public for basic practical hands-on information of employment standards and how address a situation when someone’s rights have been violated.

    “About 50 per cent of the people who we talked to who are not union members say they want to join a union,” he said. “Almost everyone wants to know more about their rights as employees.”

    Grant said one of the most common concerns people have is that the government has made filing a complaint with the Employment Standards Branch very complicated.

    “There is now a 19-page form, a so-called self-help form, that you have to fill out and file with the employer first before you can file a complaint with Employment Standards,” he said. “That makes you a prime candidate for dismissal or harassment. We teach people how to do a risk assessment as to how dangerous doing this might be depending on the employer. We also advise people to join a union, where you can get access to grievance procedures, advise and support.”

    While he acknowledges there is a great deal of ignorance among employers, especially in small business, about workers’ rights, Grant says the simple fact of bosses taking advantage of workers’ ignorance of their own rights is a much bigger problem.

    “Since the government has now brought in averaging agreements (where employees can trade off overtime pay rates for accrued time off), many employers are telling employees they are no longer entitled to overtime pay even though they haven’t signed an averaging agreement,” he said. “The employees haven’t agreed to waived their overtime pay, but the employer tells them they don’t have overtime anymore.”

    But he adds a key part of the training is to encourage people to simply stand up to a boss to insist their rights be respected. “Quite often an employer will do something if it is pointed out to them,” he said. “People can do quite well enforcing their rights simply by knowing what those rights are and being confident about them.”

    Grant is especially enthused about the interest shown by individuals and groups who are interested in taking the workshops so they can conduct classes of their own and teach others. New Democratic Party Youth campus clubs, individual union activists and Aboriginal groups have done this, Grant says.

    But he also say that many younger workers feel that most unions are not interested in organizing their workplaces or offering any assistance, and that is something the too many labour organizations have let slide for too long.

    “A lot of people feel that since they work in places where the workforce is highly transient or unstable or really small that unions won’t be interested in helping them,” he said. “ I think a lot of unions should take some heat there. A lot of these places are hard to organize for these reasons and quite often the employer is very resistant to their employees forming a union. But given the free choice, most of these workers will join a union, and labour needs to take more of an interest in that.”

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