Federal workers get a boost from Liberal labour reforms

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marches with The Labourers International Union of North America during the Labour Day Parade in Hamilton, Ontario. Image: Filomena Tassi/Twitter

Three paid sick days, three paid bereavement leaves and better scheduling rights are some of the major changes to federal labour laws that came into effect on September 1, 2019. 

The protections and rights apply to approximately 900,000 workers in federally regulated industries including banking, telecommunications, airports, railways and certain First Nations communities.

The changes are part of the Trudeau government's plan to modernize labour standards, which have been left largely unchanged since the 1960s, according to a government press release.

The government has promised another wave of reforms in 2020 that include prevention of workplace harassment and violence, pay equity, and greater protections for interns as well as addressing the misclassification of employees as independent contractors. 

A snapshot of the changes

The changes that came into effect on September 1, 2019 include:

  • Five days of personal/sick leave (including three paid days)

  • Employees' right to not provide a medical certificate of leave unless they take three consecutive days off

  • 10 days of domestic violence leave (including five days paid)

  • Five unpaid days leave for traditional Indigenous practices

  • Employers are required to give workers advance notice of 96 hours before the start of shifts

  • Increase in vacation entitlements (three weeks after five years of service; four weeks after 10 years of service)

  • Employees will have access to various types of leave including medical and parental from the first day of work

A long time coming

Workers' rights advocates have welcomed the changes, noting that they offer better protection and flexibility for employees that have long been needed. 

Hassan Youssef, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said that many of these changes were advocated by the Harry Arthurs report in 2006, which was based on wide consultation.

The report was commissioned by the Paul Martin Liberal government to review the federal labour code. But as Youssef pointed out, the Stephen Harper regime (2006-2015) ignored the recommendations of the report, resulting in workers missing out on vital reforms.

Youssef highlighted the importance of these changes to non-unionized workers who are not covered by the organized labour movement.

Nil Sendil, from the advocacy group Workers' Action Centre, said the reforms were essential but fairly basic and modest improvements, as evidenced by the introduction of three paid sick days and a 96-hour scheduling notice.

Setting a precedent for provincial laws

While federal labour standards apply to nearly a million workers, the work of most Canadians is governed by provincial law.

Sendil said the federal standards could set a new precedent for the provinces to emulate. She cited the example of paid sick days, which are virtually inaccessible for any worker operating under provincial law across Canada.

Workers in Nova Scotia are entitled to one paid sick day if they have worked for over five years for the same employer. Ontario's workers briefly enjoyed many labour protections including better scheduling rights and two paid sick days for nearly a year before the Ford government rolled back reforms enacted by the Liberals.

Citing a Campaign Research poll that showed 77 per cent of Ontarians favoured two paid sick days, Sendil said that the popularity of basic workplace rights was a major reason why the federal government had introduced reforms.

"That's an important reason in why we are now getting these federal improvements because politicians are seeing how widely needed and how widely supported these changes are," she said.

Employer pushback and post-election concerns

In context of the rollbacks in Ontario, Youssef highlighted that the labour movement would have to guard against the possibility of going backwards by electing a Conservative government. 

"The employers starting to make all kinds of noise that it's not done properly, that we didn't do enough consultation, which is a pile of crock," he said. 

The government had consulted employers, labour-advocacy groups, academics and others while making changes through two separate pieces of legislation in 2017 and 2018.  

"The kind of noise they are making, can only be reflected by a right-wing regime that comes into the fall, who will want to roll this back as we saw happening in Ontario."

Sendil argued that in light of employers' historical pushback against labour reforms, their current lobbying efforts have to be viewed skeptically. 

"Businesses crying that the sky is going to fall and these changes are going to make business impossible -- it's simply not true," she said. "And we should not let them get away with such things."

Zaid Noorsumar is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2019, and is a journalist who has previously contributed to CBC, The Canadian Press, the Toronto Star and Rankandfile.ca. To contact Zaid with story leads, email zaid[at]rabble.ca.

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