New legislation must ensure labour protections extend to workers in poverty

11-15-17

As the media coverage exposing harassment and sexual violence in places like Hollywood and the political sphere, there is timely legislation moving forward which addresses harassment in the workplace on both the federal and provincial levels.

According to an Abacus Data report, one in ten people in Canada say sexual harassment is “really quite common” in their workplace, and a majority of both men and women agree that they normally see no sanctions applied to those who sexually harass women in the workplace. For those who are employed and living in poverty – the adequacy of programs to address workplace harassment is particularly important. If an individual is living paycheque-to-paycheque, the threat of losing employment because of reporting harassment carries significant weight.

What is the Federal Government is proposing to protect harassment in the workplace?

On the federal level, proposed Bill 65 looks to amend the Canadian Labour Code to address how workplace harassment is handled. Sponsored by Patty Hajdu, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, Bill 65 would institute a new regime of sexual harassment and violence provisions that would apply fully or partially to federally-regulated private sector industries – this includes most Crown corporations, as well as the federal public service.

And as many of our colleagues working on the issue would explain, the solution to workplace harassment isn’t singular – it’s a problem that requires a comprehensive solution.

The Canadian Labour Congress has welcomed the bill a new avenue to address gaps and inconsistencies in current legislation around workplace violence and harassment, but has also called for clarity around the role of union representation and the Canadian Human Rights Commission will play in addressing complaints. Similarly, Unifor has called for the legislation to be implemented quickly.

What about Federal protections for workers who need to take leave from work because of family violence?

Alongside Bill 65 the federal government also introduced Bill 63, the Budget Implementation Act, which includes new provisions for workplace leave and flexibility of arrangements, including a leave for victims of family violence for a maximum of ten days. Critics of this component of the bill have focused on the fact that the leave accounted for would be unpaid, making it inaccessible to some low-income workers or workers struggling with their economic security – which could exacerbate danger for those in economically abusive or controlling relationships at added risk of violence. The legislation goes beyond just federal employees, covering all federally-regulated workplaces– and with a growing reliance on contract labour means even workers in federal environments are at risk of precarity.

What are Provincial Governments proposing?

Alongside the federal budget Bill, Ontario’s provincial government has proposed changes to the Employment Standards Act to include two streams of unpaid leave for workers if they or their children are experiencing domestic or sexual violence in their home. These proposed changes follow a private members bill proposed in September 2017 which called for 10 days of paid leave.

Manitoba was the first province to institute domestic violence leave in 2016, with legislation that includes a leave of five paid days, five unpaid days, and an additional 17-week unpaid period for those who are experiencing violence and need to flee or find a new place to live.

What does the proposed legislation mean for people in poverty?

These pieces of legislation place Canada one step closer to creating workplaces that are accessible and adequate for those in particular sectors and regions; however, we still have a long way to go in order to ensure these programmes understand and approach workers as rights-bearers and that leave programmes are accessible to the most marginalized workers in Canada—including those living in poverty.
Labour rights are human rights

Unpaid leave may be sufficient for employees who may have more flexibility in taking time off and covering emergency expenses, but for the many people across the country who live paycheque-to-paycheque, leave that isn’t paid won’t be an option. At the same time, many of these new programmes and provisions will be out of reach for workers in more unstable job situations—at a time when precarious employment – temporary, contract, or other insecure placements—is on the rise across Canada.

A rights-based approach to work and employer-employee relations is critical to effectively addressing violence, harassment, and other conditions detrimental workplace environments.  This approach is built on the right to work as guaranteed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as a number of other international human rights covenants.

Understanding all workers as rights-bearers and focusing on accessibility of new programmes, rather than focusing legislation largely on the needs of employers, would put Canada closer to meeting our human rights obligations and ensuring all workers are safe.

Laura Neidhart is the Development and Communications Coordinator at Canada Without Poverty.