November 2, 2004
Vacation Time, Work Week Standards On Table: Govít Gets Set To Revamp Labour Code
Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA (CP) - The federal government is set to launch a national round of collective negotiations with the potential to revamp life on the job as we know it.
Everything from the length of the work week to maternity leave, a national minimum wage and Canada's paltry two-week vacation standard will be on the table when a federal commission begins work next month, says Labour Minister Joe Fontana.
The four-person panel, to be officially launched in a couple of weeks, will undertake what Fontana is calling a "pretty monumental exercise" studying the social side of working life.
"I want to engage Canadians in starting to think about: What kind of workplaces? Because it hasn't been done in 50 years," Fontana told The Canadian Press.
"No one has started to think about and ask the very questions, how much vacation time should we have off? How long should one have to work in a day? Should there be a federal minimum wage in this country?
"All of those issues are very, very important."
A commissioner has already been selected by the Liberal government - Fontana won't yet say who - and will begin work in December. There will be public and private hearings across the country, with an interim report expected by next autumn.
Only 10 per cent of Canadian workers, totaling about 1.5 million people, fall directly under federal jurisdiction.
But Fontana says Ottawa has to be a leader all the same. Several provinces are currently considering the same set of workplace questions, and the minister expects some of those "will defer to federal guidelines."
The commission's formal mandate is to overhaul part three of the Canada Labour Code, which has had only piecemeal modifications since it was introduced in 1965. Parts one and two, involving collective bargaining and health and safety, have been modernized over the past five years.
While part three of the code deals with work hours, vacations and personnel issues such as severance and compassionate leave, Fontana seemed to suggest a much broader mandate for the commission.
He said he's personally in favour of longer vacation periods, and he wants to examine the option of four-day work weeks.
He even sees possible changes to the law on replacement workers - or scabs, as the labour movement has always called new workers hired by employers to fill in for those on strike. That issue isn't currently included in the federal code's part three, although some provinces have wrestled with it.
"We haven't gone the full way - as Quebec has and I believe B.C. - (to) outright banning of replacement workers," said Fontana.
"I've indicated I'm prepared to look at that."
Some labour and business groups have already had informal discussions with Fontana's department about the commission.
"We'll see when the darn thing comes out as to whether it's a review of part three . . . or whether it's bigger," said Mike Murphy of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
"From our standpoint, these are all issues that are vitally important to employers." Murphy supports the commission - "At least there's a crack at some consultation," - but not everyone agrees.
"I don't know if we really need this big foofaraw," said Catherine Swift of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
"I'm sure labour is pushing for it to see what they can get."
Mark Leier, a labour historian at Simon Fraser University, said all such commissions run up against the same reality.
"For all its innovations and changes, capitalism remains a zero-sum game," said Leier.
"When workers gain better conditions and wages, profits go down; when profits go up, workers' incomes suffer."
Leier argues that employers have successfully rolled back worker gains in recent years, and any federal commission must start from that premise.
"The commission needs to listen not just to employers but to unions, and to those workers who are not represented by unions and who are virtually unprotected in the workplace," he said.
Fontana said that while all stakeholders will assist the commission, when it comes to reforming labour laws "there is no consensus."
"Of course, who's going to pay for (reforms) is the very, very big question because you have to work that all into the equation too."
The commission's job is "most challenging," he said.
But the tough issues must be dealt with soon because Canada faces a huge labour shortage in the next 10 to 15 years.
Fontana said that even if Canada can attract up to 500,000 immigrants annually, it won't solve the worker shortfall. Attracting and keeping employees will become a global concern.
As for the federal labour code itself, legal changes are almost surely in the cards.
"At the end of the day it also becomes a political decision if there is no consensus."