Canadian workers employed in insecure situations offering little in terms of livable wages, job security, benefits and pensions are increasingly on their own when it comes to protection of their rights.
That’s one of the messages a Dalhousie University audience in Halifax heard Thursday during a talk about precarious employment.
Two visiting employment law experts told law students and others that a changing economy means one thing is certain: uncertainty in the marketplace equals less-than-solid employment for many in the workplace.
Some segments of the workforce, such as women and immigrants, are particularly vulnerable, said the labour law gurus.
The speakers, C. Michael Mitchell and John C. Murray, were appointed by the Ontario government in 2015 to advise that province’s Ministry of Labour on changing workplaces, and how workers and employers there might be affected.
Mitchell is a former senior partner at a law firm representing unions, and Murray is a retired Ontario judge and former management-side lawyer. They’re leading a review of Ontario’s labour legislation.
The speakers told a group at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law that trade unions in Canada don’t have nearly the impact on the labour market they did decades ago.
“Only 14 per cent of Ontario’s private-sector employees (are) covered by collective bargaining agreements,” Murray said. Therefore, if the involvement of unions is declining — and it is — that void needs to be considered by policy-makers, he said.
“If the trade union movement is, in fact, diminishing in importance politically (and) economically, in terms of government policy, is there a different role for employment law?” Murray asked.
Mitchell said Ontario is the only jurisdiction in Canada that excludes agriculture workers from collective bargaining. He said domestics, most of whom are women, are also shut out of union representation.
Murray said this country doesn’t have the history of trade unionism that’s long existed in Europe, a system in which “trade unions have a centralized involvement” in the economy.
Experts say today’s labour market in Canada not only includes traditional careers, it has a widening “gig” economy — that element of the market with freelance workers, temporary employees and others who have little workplace protection.
Last October, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau said Canadians should get used to “job churn,” in which people experience short-term employment and career changes during their time in the labour force.
He said this about precarious employment, at a meeting of Liberal party members in Ontario: “We ... need to think about, ‘How do we train and retrain people as they move from job to job to job?’ Because it’s going to happen. We have to accept that.”
At a youth labour forum last October, organized by the Canadian Labour Congress, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on the receiving end of heckles and jeers voiced by some young attendees. He suggested precarious work, including jobs with no pensions, is a fact of life, The Canadian Press reported.
Trudeau told the forum last year the issue of precarious employment is a major concern for his government, CP said. The federal government’s next budget is to be released March 22.
An update to Ontario’s labour laws was mentioned in Premier Kathleen Wynne's throne speech after the 2014 provincial election, hence the hiring of Mitchell and Murray as employment law consultants.
Mitchell’s and Murray’s final report is just about ready to be delivered to the Wynne government, the lecture heard.
In Nova Scotia, the last time the Trade Union Act was revised was 2013, according to a spokeswoman for the Labour and Advanced Education Department. The Labour Standards Code was amended in 2016.
This province’s unemployment rate in February was 8.1 per cent, Statistics Canada says. The national rate was 6.6 per cent.
Mitchell and Murray were guest speakers at the 7th Innis Christie Lecture in Labour and Employment Law. They addressed students, law faculty members, local lawyers, Dalhousie alumni and members of Christie’s family.
Christie, who died in 2009, was a Dal law professor and law school dean who was appointed deputy minister of labour after the Westray coal mine explosion killed 26 workers in 1992 in Pictou County.
Michael Lightstone is a freelance reporter living in Dartmouth.