Happy Labour Day everyone.
Whatever your plans are for this last long weekend of summer, please take a moment to think about the workers who brought us this holiday in the first place.
In Canada, Labour Day is the result of an 1886 Royal Commission that proposed a September statutory holiday to quell the conflict that was simmering between labour and capital at the time. Although unions had been legal since 1872 under the Trade Unions Act, the outrageous arrests and criminal prosecution of striking trade unionists prior to the act was still fresh in the memories of many.
When Labour Day became a statutory holiday in 1894, it empowered workers to amplify their longstanding fight for fair wages, safe workplaces and a reduction in the working day from 12 hours to nine hours. That is no typo. Canada has only had a 40-hour week since the 1960s.
But I will stop the history lesson here and focus on just the last few years in our province.
The lowest paid workers in B.C. now earn the highest minimum wage in the country — $15.65 per hour — thanks to the progressive and predictable increases brought in by the BC NDP government. More than half of minimum wage earners are over 25, which means they are working to earn a living and not merely saving for a European vacation during their gap year.
Amendments to the Employment Standards Act in January also gave workers in B.C. up to five days paid sick leave. Prior to January 2022, more than one million workers in mostly low-wage jobs did not have access to paid sick days, which meant that they either went to work ill or lost pay for every day they were absent.
Paid sick days are typical of union contracts and so it was more good news for workers when the Labour Relations Code was amended this year to make it more difficult for employers to interfere in union organizing drives, as they have commonly done for decades.
It is worth noting that a 2018 Labour Code review found more than 90 per cent of complaints filed to the Labour Board for unfair labour practices involved either unlawful termination or communication during an organizing drive.
And finally, in the astonishingly long overdue category, life-saving changes will finally be introduced under the Workers Compensation Act requiring asbestos abatement contractors to be licensed, and the workers and employers who perform asbestos abatement to complete mandatory safety training and certification.
Workplace deaths owing to asbestos exposure do not generally garner a lot of media headlines and that is mostly due to it being a so-called “silent killer” that does not show itself until years after exposure and then slowly steals the breath and life of its victims. Asbestos is responsible for a third of work-related deaths.
Despite these advancements, there is still more work to do.
I am reminded of this every day when I arrive at my office in south Surrey and walk past two memorials installed on our property. One monument honours the 26 miners who lost their lives in the Granduc Mine slide in 1965, and the other pays tribute to members of our union who died on the job from as far back as 1972 to as recently as three years ago.
There are 11 names on the second memorial, and additional spaces have been gruesomely set aside for more. As I write this, I am told there is another roadside worker who was killed last year whose name has not yet been added.
So, as much as Labour Day is a celebration of workers’ achievements and a day to enjoy what we have rightfully earned as workers ourselves, it is also a day to remember the deep sacrifices that many made to get us here and how easily everything can be taken away.
I wish you all a safe, restful and reflective Labour Day 2022.
Nav Malhotra is the business manager/secretary-treasurer of the Labourers’ International Union of North America Local 1611 based in south Surrey. Send Industry Perspectives Op-Ed comments and column ideas to email@example.com.