Apr 4, 2024

Why BC needs sectoral bargaining now

By and Why we need sectoral bargaining
Photo credit: Kauka Jarvi / Shutterstock.com

Too many BC workers lack meaningful access to the benefits of collective bargaining, and the failure of our labour laws to keep up with the evolving nature of work is a key culprit. The result is growing income inequality, widespread gender and racial pay gaps and entire sectors—like hospitality and janitorial services—stuck in a race to the bottom that drives down wages and living standards for everyone. 

To reverse these disturbing trends and shift to a healthier, more equitable economy, BC urgently needs to enable broader-based—or sectoral—bargaining models in the private sector. This is what we told the independent review panel tasked with recommending changes to BC’s labour laws. 

Sectoral bargaining represents a different approach to labour law than the worksite-based certification model prevalent in BC. Instead of channeling all organizing and bargaining efforts at the individual workplace, sectoral bargaining  provides ways to bring together workers across an industry or occupation within a designated region to negotiate minimum standards for the entire sector.

BC urgently needs to enable sectoral bargaining models in the private sector.  

In BC, sectoral bargaining is common in the broader public sector, but rare in the private sector outside movie and television production and construction. BC’s private sector relies on worksite-based certification, which came out of the early 20th century industrial context dominated by large domestic firms that offered long-term employment to relatively homogenous groups of workers. However, this model is poorly suited to today’s vastly different economic realities. 

In industries characterized by small individual worksites and powerful—often multinational—employers that hide behind layers of franchising and subcontracting, the current model of worksite-based certification leaves many vulnerable workers without a realistic path to collective bargaining. 

Today, only 15% of BC’s private sector workers are covered by a collective agreement. Union coverage is even lower among women in the private sector (a paltry 11%). In the accommodation and food services sector, where women, racialized workers, immigrants and temporary foreign workers are overrepresented, only 4% of workers are covered by a collective agreement. Lower levels of unionization have diminished earnings and bargaining power for hundreds of thousands of middle- and lower-income workers, consequently increasing the share of the pie going to corporate management and shareholders​​.

Sectoral bargaining would change this.

The current model of worksite-based certification leaves many vulnerable workers without a realistic path to collective bargaining. 

Sectoral bargaining is widespread internationally and some form of it exists in much of Europe, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and elsewhere. There is good reason for this: compelling evidence shows that sectoral bargaining benefits not only workers but also the economy.

Countries with sectoral bargaining have higher collective agreement coverage rates and consequently enjoy better labour standards (including for vulnerable workers), higher levels of employment, lower income inequality and smaller gender and racial pay gaps. Further, setting industry-level standards can boost productivity by essentially eliminating the incentive to compete on who can drive wages and working conditions down further and encourage competition on who can produce a better product and better manage their operations instead. 

It’s time to expand BC’s labour laws to enable sectoral bargaining and make a real difference in the working lives of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable workers.

UP-BCThis article is part of Understanding Precarity in BC (UP-BC), a research and public engagement initiative investigating precarious work and multi-dimensional precarity in British Columbia. UP-BC is jointly led by Simon Fraser University’s Morgan Centre for Labour Research and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC Office, and brings together four BC universities, 26 community-based organizations and more than 80 academic and community researchers and collaborators. The partnership is supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). For more information about UP-BC visit understandingprecarity.ca.

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