Labour Day reflection

Lana
Lana Payne
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Labour Day is the day that Canada gave the rest of the world.
So you'd think our labour standards and laws would be at the very least among some of the best in the world. Not so.
Instead, Canada is a laggard when it comes to labour laws and standards.
This weekend, as Canadians moan the end of summer, thousands of trade union activists will reflect on the contributions unions have made to Canadian society. And there have been many.
Safer workplaces and strong laws to govern them; paid vacations and sick leave; maternity and parental benefits and leave; family days; pay equity; the shorter-work week; unemployment insurance and medicare were all fought for by unions. In many cases, these advances first appeared in a collective agreement before they became part of the fabric of our working lives.
Unions continue to fight for a more balanced world where principles like social justice and equality outweigh the might of corporate greed and the insatiable hunger for more and more profit.
Another of labour's contributions has been the holiday of Labour Day.
Labour Day has its roots in a workers' demonstration in Toronto in April 1872. The demonstration and parade was held in support of striking printers, fighting for a shorter work week. The workers were successful in their bid for a 54-hour work week and in their efforts to legalize unions.
The parades held in support of the shorter work week and union rights in 1872 continued and became an annual expression of union solidarity.
The success of these parades spread south of the border and while the United States actually declared Labour Day a holiday a month before Canada did in 1894, it was the workers of Canada who got things rolling; who planted the seeds; who gave the world Labour Day.
Given Canada's vast economic expansion over the past several decades and the wealth generated by that expansion, you'd think that wealth would be shared better among the citizens and families of Canada. But study after study has highlighted how poor Canada is at sharing its wealth, despite our stated ideals of caring and sharing.
Statistics Canada and the people behind the Growing Gap Project have detailed how in the past 30 years, the wealthiest 20 pr cent of Canadians are grabbing the biggest piece of the income pie, while everyone else is either standing still or are worse off.
And now the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy says while Canadians might think they have some of the best working and living conditions on the planet, we are actually lagging behind workers in many other parts of the world.
The Institute's research shows that policies in many Canadian provinces sometimes fall far short of those in dozens of other nations when it comes to support for such basic things as maternity leave, annual paid vacations, and sick leave.
The Work Equity Canada (WECan) Index measured Canadian laws and practices against those of other countries. The McGill researchers examined how 180 different nations treat their workers.
When it comes to paid vacations, Canada falls far behind 89 other countries, according to the study. These countries guarantee workers three weeks or more of paid leave a year while most workers in Canada with a year on the job are only guaranteed two, unless you belong to a union.
On top of fixed paid holidays, the great majority of unionized workers in Canada get at least three weeks of paid vacation time a year and 70 per cent get four weeks, usually after 10 years of service. This increases to five weeks after 15 years on the job.
But if you are not in a union, you depend on your employer or the minimum standards set by provinces to determine your vacation time. In the case of Newfoundland and Labrador, our minimum standards leave much to be desired and should be enhanced as part of the province's youth retention and recruitment strategy.
For example, while Newfoundland and Labrador workers are entitled to two weeks vacation after being with an employer for a year, they are not entitled to the third week until they have punched 15 years of service. Most other provinces allow for the third week after five or six years of service.
The McGill study also examined sick leave and of the 156 countries examined in this area, 81 countries guarantee full wage replacement. Canada, under its Employment Insurance Program, provides just 55 per cent of earnings capped at about $41,000.
As for maternity leave, 106 countries, according to the WECan Index, provide mothers with complete wage replacement, provided they are in the formal workforce. In Canada, as is the case with sick leave, most women are only guaranteed 55 per cent of their insurable income during maternity leave, except in Quebec, where women receive 70 to 75 per cent of their insured income.
Some unions have managed to negotiate 100 per cent wage replacement for maternity and parental leave, but this gain has yet to become as a universal right. Newfoundland and Labrador has brought in a $100 monthly payment for parents for the first year after the birth of the child. This is an important step in ensuring women are not economically disadvantaged for having children, but plenty more needs to be done to close the gap.
Perhaps the pressure on provinces, by unions and their social partners, to increase minimum wages so they more reflect a living wage, will become the first of many advances in labour standards across the country.
As provinces like Newfoundland and Labrador fight to recruit and retain workers, it would be smart to do something about the workplace standards that govern those workers. Today's young workers have choices and working under dark-age conditions isn't likely to be among the choice they make.
Have a safe and happy Labour Day.

Organizations: McGill, Statistics Canada, McGill Institute for Health Employment Insurance

Geographic location: Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, Toronto United States Quebec

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