Written by Michael J Weiler

Is This 1992 “Deja Vu All Over Again?

I have been involved with the BC Chamber of Commerce for over 30 years providing advice and input into matters related to labour, employment, workers compensation, human rights and related matters. Every year the Chamber hosts a luncheon with the Premier and the members of Cabinet.  Except for the early years of the Liberals assent to power in 2002, for 16 years, the luncheon, addresses and Q & A have not been terribly earth-shattering or exciting in respect of my area of practice.  On Friday, December 8, 2017, the Chamber hosted the new NDP Premier and his cabinet ministers.  I was fortunate to sit at Minister of Labour Harry Bains’ table as I anticipate the changes to labour and employment laws will be significant (note the Attorney General and not the Minister of Labour is responsible for the Human Rights Code).

The Premier sent a letter to Minister Bains on July 18, 2017, outlining the 5 immediate priorities of the NDP government for the Minister of Labour:

  1. Establish a Fair Wage Commission to support the work of implementing the $15-per-hour minimum wage by 2021 and to bring forward recommendations to close the gap between the minimum wage and livable wages. (The commission will make its first report within 90 days of its first meeting.)
  2. Create a Temporary Foreign Worker registry to help protect vulnerable workers from exploitation and to track the use of temporary workers in our economy.
  3. Update employment standards to reflect the changing nature of workplaces and ensure they are applied evenly and enforced.
  4. Review and develop options with WorkSafe B.C. to increase compliance with employment laws and standards put in place to protect the lives and safety of workers.
  5. Ensure British Columbians have the same rights and protections enjoyed by other Canadians by reviewing the Labour Code (sic) to ensure workplaces support a growing, sustainable economy with fair laws for workers and businesses.

The Fair Wage Commission is well on its way and I suspect we might see legislation in the Spring session of the legislature (although I note that Minister Farnsworth has indicated the Government’s docket will be primarily focused on bringing in legislation in anticipation of the legalization of marijuana which may take up most of the government’s time).

It is not clear how the Temporary Workers Registry will work or what its true goal is.  I wonder if it will look at the need to employ more of the refugees who have made Canada their home before allowing such temporary workers.

The BC Law Foundation will issue its long-awaited report on the Employment Standards Act in 2018 likely in two phases.  That report, I suspect, will serve as the foundation of changes to the Act in the Fall session.

The government has already made personnel changes at WorkSafe and we will wait to see what further changes are to be made.  Expect other legislative and regulatory changes at WorkSafe.

Finally, the elephant in the room may well be the 5th priority, namely, changes to the Labour Relations Code.  In 1992 the NDP government introduced massive changes to the Code, the vast majority favouring unions.  The key change was to eliminate the secret ballot vote by allowing a union to be certified based on membership cards.  In 2002, the Liberal Government reversed that decision and reinstated the secret ballot.  Now, the leader of the Green Party has stated that he would not favour the abolition of the secret ballot vote in favour of card-based certification.  Other changes in 1992 included the Replacement Worker prohibition under section 68.  The change of senior LRB personnel at the time affected the interpretation of the Code, most importantly, in the area of appropriate bargaining units (which reflected the government’s priority of extending union representation). The appointment of Stan Lanyon as Chair of the LRB was key to shaping the 1992 legislation.  In 2017 Brent Mullin, the long-serving chair of the LRB left the Board and a new Chair will be appointed shortly.

Employers must be realistic and accept that many changes will favour employees and unions.  The one thing I mentioned to Minister Bains at the Chamber lunch is that I hoped that any changes would be carefully considered from a business perspective as well as from a workers’ or union perspective and that this NDP government would avoid the huge pendulum swing of 1992.

The Minister’s appointment letter is found at: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/governments/organizational-structure/ministries-organizations/ministries/labour