MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard spoke about Workers’ Rights in the Legislature

Today, MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard spoke about Workers’ Rights in the Legislature. You can watch the video here, or read the transcript below.

I appreciate the opportunity to address the motion, by the member for Nanaimo–North Cowichan, on recognizing the importance of worker rights and protections.

Now 107 years ago on March 25, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City killed 145 workers, mostly young immigrant girls. These young girls were unorganized, isolated by language, exploited by their vulnerable economic circumstances and working at great risk. Despite full awareness of the dangerous conditions and the threat of fire, nothing was done until tragedy struck.

The public outrage that ensued brought 80,000 people onto the streets demanding change. It was a defining moment in history for worker safety. It drove legislative change, systemic change instituting protections like fire prevention laws, improved labour codes so that unsafe working conditions could be addressed and workers’ rights enforced, and of course, it galvanized workers to unite to put power behind their demands for their safety and well-being on the job.

We know that this one catastrophe was only the beginning. Over a century has rolled by, and workers’ rights and protections have felt the changing fortunes of time.

Let’s look at today’s circumstances. I refer to points raised in an article written by Jock Finlayson for the Business Council of B.C. in 2015. Along with globalization, he highlighted today’s changing demographics, technological innovation, changing business practices and the structure of employment as contributing to a less organized labour force — in other words, compromising the ability of workers to assert their rights and protections.

Four out of five private sector workers in B.C. must rely on the minimum standards and protections afforded in the Employment Standards Act. Who are these workers that are now more vulnerable to being treated unfairly or having their health and safety compromised? They can be full-time employees, but often they work part-time or in temporary positions, or they work on contract as freelancers or in self-employed positions. They are likely to work in the service sector, especially small operations, or for high-tech start-ups.

How does the Employment Standards Act stand up against the 1911 watershed moment in workers’ rights and protections? It would be nice if we could say we’ve come a long way. But have we?

It didn’t take long before the previous B.C. Liberal government began its slash-and-burn program against workers’ rights and protections, in 2002. As stated earlier, they reduced the number of offices across the province and staffing, despite the number of workers in B.C. increasing by 23 percent and the number of employers by 25 percent.

Where every complaint was investigated before the B.C. Liberals took office in 2001, they swiftly brought in legislation that watered down the process. Workers must use a self-help kit, which has resulted in a great reduction of complaints. Rather, with the complicated process, there are improper supports which intimidate people and have become a barrier to justice for the most vulnerable workers.

Proactive enforcement and unannounced inspections have been abandoned. The act is now rife with exemptions of occupations and exclusions to rules.

Despite the challenges for workers in today’s marketplace, the previous government stated that they had no intention of changing employment standards in the foreseeable future. With workers losing out on wages and minimum benefits afforded to only some, and other violations of worker rights and protections, life is far from affordable and is lacking in the services they need to ensure fairness and safety in the workplace.

It is no wonder the mandate letter of the new Minister of Labour calls for an increase to compliance with the employment laws and to put in place standards to protect the lives and safety of workers. Our government has begun this work, already increasing the funding for assistance to both workers and employers to navigate the workers compensation process.

The mandate also calls for an update to employment standards to reflect the changing nature of workplaces and ensure they are evenly applied and enforced. We can make B.C. a workplace of choice in the world.