Workers’ Rights are Human Rights, too.


The first of May has a long history for the organized labour movement as International Worker’s Day.

Labour rights are human rightsThis day marks the anniversary of the Haymarket Affair – the influential labour demonstration held in Chicago in 1886 that sparked a movement – and serves as a day to highlight the rights of workers to fair work, collective bargaining, and safe working conditions.

Organized labour was not just a movement for our neighbours in the south. Canada has a strong history of activism in the 19th and 20th centuries that led to the creation of many aspects of working life now seen as ordinary and immutable: unemployment insurance, a standard work week, parental leave, and bargaining rights.

While the labour movement has already achieved so much, the need to fulfill and protect labour rights is far from over. In Canada, a country where 70% of people living in poverty are considered “working poor”, labour and poverty go hand-in-hand.

Across the country, making ends meet when working in minimum wage employment is virtually impossible. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculates that, in Regina, a living wage would need to be set at $16.46 per hour. In contrast, provincial minimum wage in Saskatchewan is only $10.72. In Vancouver, these rates are even more stark: living wage is estimated at $20.64 per hour, while minimum wage sits at $10.85. The current climate is one of increasing division those most wealthy and least wealthy, with a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities; between 1980 and 2005, the average earnings among the least wealthy Canadians fell by 20%.

Labour standards and economic rights are not new in the global conversation, or Canada for that matter. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Canada ratified in 1976, directly calls for the right to work and the right for workers to be paid fair wages, equal pay for equal work, safe working conditions, and paid time off.

The conversation around labour rights and standards will become even more critical as the economy moves towards relying more readily on precarious jobs – positions which include self-employment, involuntary part-time, nonstandard, contract, or interim work. In the GTA, some 52% of workers are employed in some version of precarious work, meaning they don’t receive benefits, pensions or, sometimes, even minimum wage.

For the newest generation of workers, employment no longer carries the certainty previous generations obtained through their jobs; in fact, only 2% of workers under the age of 20 and 9% of workers between the ages of 20-24 have workplace pensions.

The Canadian labour movement has long called for affordable childcare, adequate parental leave and paid time off, and a living wage for all workers. The Dignity for All model anti-poverty plan echoes these measures which will raise the working poor out of the poverty, including national wage standards that will put workers above the poverty line, universal and affordable childcare, and the creation of a National Jobs Creation and Training Strategy.

The right to work – a legal obligation for the Canadian government – includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain a decent living for themselves and their families through work which they freely choose or accept. As much as International Worker’s Day and last Friday’s National Day of Mourning – a day to remember those who lost their lives or were injured on the job – are moments of remembrance and memorial, they also serve as occasions to re-energize Canada to become a country where labour rights are human rights.

This May 1st is a perfect opportunity for the government to recommit to ensuring the right to work for everyone in Canada.

Laura Neidhart is the Development & Communications Coordinator for Canada Without Poverty.