Oct 13, 2017

Employment supports and labour market participation: 20th Anniversary retrospective


From 2001 to 2003, BC’s new Liberal government instituted significant policy reforms in the delivery and governance of public services. In 2004, Simon Fraser University and the CCPA-BC secured a five-year Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) grant to research how those reforms were affecting the economic security of vulnerable populations, and to undertake this work through creation of a broad network of researchers and community advocates from academia, non-government organizations and community groups.

Called the Economic Security Project (ESP), I was as a community research project investigator and collaborator in the Employment Standards & Labour Market Participation stream of inquiry. At the time I was Director of the Trade Union Research Bureau and with others focused on the government’s policy changes for employment supports and labour market regulation and their effects, specifically changes to the Employment Standards Act, regulations under the Act and methods of enforcing it.

The government contended that BC’s employment standards needed to be more “flexible” and thus more beneficial to both employers and employees. Therefore, between May 2002 and May 2004 the government passed three bills into law (Bills 48, 37 and 56) that made approximately 42 substantive changes to the Employment Standards Act and a further 40 changes to the Employment Standards Regulation. There was also a radical reduction in budgets and staffing resources to the Employment Standards Branch, which was responsible for enforcing the Employment Standards Act.

The first ESP research for which I was the investigator focused on policy analysis, baseline database acquisition and development, and preliminary regime change impact measurement, which provided a detailed picture of the labour standards regime and the Act prior to and after the government’s substantive changes from 2002 to 2004.

Changes to the Employment Standards Act made in 2002–2004 created a system that remains less reliable, less transparent and less effective.

The resulting CCPA-BC publication, Eroding Worker Protections: British Columbia’s New ‘Flexible’ Employment Standards, found that the sweeping reductions and changes to employment standards and the enforcement program had a number of serious negative impacts on workers. These included the ability of workers to become aware of their workplace rights, to complain about violations of their rights, and to obtain fair treatment pursuing complaints and having them adequately investigated.

Taken together, the changes created an employment standards system that remains less reliable, less transparent and less effective in providing a foundation of basic rights and protections for vulnerable workers. The report has been quoted and referenced widely in the academic and employment regulation policy research literature, and a paper I wrote based on this research was published in the Journal of Law and Social Policy in Fall 2006.

Over 20 reports resulted from the Economic Security Project, and that initial employment standards regime change research led to my participation in two more research reports in the Employment Standards & Labour Market Participation stream.

The first, Negotiating Without a Floor: Unionized Worker Exclusion From BC Employment Standards, focused on the impact of unprecedented exclusion of unionized workers from core provisions of the Employment Standards Act by the BC Liberal government. The report circulated widely within the union movement, resulting in collective bargaining recommendations to address corresponding weaknesses in collective agreements.

The second of these reports that I collaborated on focused on an investigation into the impact of employment standards changes and deficiencies on immigrant and migrant farm workers. The report, Cultivating Farmworker Rights: Ending the Exploitation of Immigrant and Migrant Farmworkers in BC , was published by the CCPA in 2009.

The ongoing work of the BC Employment Standards Coalition has influenced political party platforms.

While these research projects did not result in change to government policy and enforcement of employment standards, they did lay the foundation for a joint initiative of the Trade Union Research Bureau and CCPA-BC: the BC Employment Standards Coalition. The Coalition has the support and participation of a number of the community organizations, workers advocates, unions and academic researchers who participated in or supported the proposals for employment standards changes contained in the research reports.

The ongoing work of the BC Employment Standards Coalition has influenced opposition political party platforms and the BC Law Institute’s decision in 2015 to undertake an independent review of the Employment Standards Act. As an Economic Security Project community partner, the Trade Union Research Bureau expanded the scope of its research and knowledge of employment standards law in BC and across Canada, becoming a resource on employment standards for other groups, particularly migrant worker advocacy organizations.

My experience working with the CCPA-BC Office in these and other research and publication projects has been everything that one could reasonably expect from a mutually supportive academic-community research partnership. The CCPA has been invaluable to me and to the BC Employment Standards Coalition in providing critical review and publication support for our opinion pieces and reports.

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