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Industry Voices Op-Ed: Labour Day celebrates the many advancements of worker safety and standards

Tom Sigurdson
Industry Voices Op-Ed: Labour Day celebrates the many advancements of worker safety and standards

Happy Labour Day, everyone.

For many of us, Labour Day traditionally signals an end to those lazy, hazy days of summer and the beginning of cooler temperatures, shorter evenings and more golden leaves on the ground.

For families with schoolchildren, Labour Day introduces a return to routine punctuated by homework, parent-teacher conferences and extracurricular activities.

Labour Day is all that and more.

In Canada, this September statutory holiday was the result of an 1886 Royal Commission that looked at ways to ease conflicts between labour and capital. It was a difficult time for workers. Unions had only been legal for 15 years, it was common for workers to spend 12 hours a day, six days a week doing their job.

The commission made many recommendations that would have improved worker safety and reduced workplace fatalities, but the proclamation of a new holiday to honour workers was the only one accepted.

Things have changed since then, of course. The Employment Standards Act sets the minimum standards for wages and working conditions in most workplaces in B.C., and among its provisions is an eight-hour work day.

Minimum standards, however, do not extend to things like coffee breaks and paid sick leave.

When an employee misses work due to illness, he or she is out-of-pocket the day’s wages.

And coffee breaks? Not required.

How about child labour? In 2003, the BC Liberal government lowered the minimum age for employment from 15 years to 12 years. That means a child of 12 may work with the consent of a parent or guardian, but there are no restrictions on the type of work that child may do, and that includes construction. The province paid out more than $5 million in disability claims to children 15 and younger between 2007 and 2017.

It goes without saying that many employers offer compensation and working conditions that exceed what is required of them in the act.

And workers with unionized employers, in particular, benefit from increased protections, representation and services through collective bargaining between their union and their employer.

But if you think unions are only about their own members, think again.

Unions have a long history of supporting and trying to lift up the vulnerable in society. Look at the BC Federation of Labour’s Fight for $15, a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. With most unionized workers making more than $15 an hour, the federation’s efforts are about increasing the quality of life for the precarious workers in minimum wage jobs.

The BC Government Employees Union has several ongoing advocacy campaigns. They include calls to invest more in B.C. parks, address the fentanyl crisis and make childcare more affordable.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees meanwhile has been lobbying for a universal Pharmacare program and better health and safety standards for airline passengers and employees.

And our own Construction and Specialized Workers’ Union (CSWU) helped 40 temporary foreign workers from Latin America win tens-of-thousands-of-dollars from their employers in 2013 when a Human Rights Tribunal ruled they were being discriminated against in wages, accommodation, meals and expenses while they worked on the Canada Line. They were not members of CSWU.

These are all examples of social unionism, a catch-all term to describe the many union activities that benefit greater society. So whether you are a union member or not, know that unions work for all of us.

On behalf of the BC Building Trades, I wish you and your family a wonderful Labour Day 2018.

Tom Sigurdson is executive director of the BC Building Trades. Send Industry Voices comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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