Federal party platforms promise more protection for workers

Labour in BC: Conservatives woo blue-collar workers with union-friendly campaign planks

Protections and benefits for Canadian workers are planks in all major federal political party platforms this election | Chung Chow/BIV files

Canada’s New Democrats (NDP) have traditionally been viewed as Canada’s blue-collar “labour” party, while the Conservatives have long been viewed as pro-business.

And while the Conservative Party of Canada’s 2021 platform is filled with pro-business, pro-industry planks, the average working stiff in Canada may be surprised at how blue-collar some of the Tory planks are. It even has some pro-union positions in it, including:

•requiring federally regulated employers with 1,000 or more employees or $100 million in annual revenue to create board seats to represent employees on boards of directors;

•requiring employers of contract and gig economy workers to pay into an employment insurance program for the self-employed;

•a new “super EI” program that would temporarily boost benefits to 75% of salary; and

•changes to the Canada Labour Code to make it easier for workers to join unions.

As of last week, neither the Liberal Party of Canada nor the Green Party had released their full platforms. The Liberals will no doubt be running, in part, on their track record, which in terms of labour issues would include the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and all other support programs for workers during the pandemic.

In that regard, the Justin Trudeau government will probably get some credit from voters, said Pedro Antunes, chief economist for the Conference Board of Canada.

“I think you need to give kudos to the Liberal government and public service for putting in place programs so quickly,” he said.

One plank the Liberals have announced that deals with labour issues is 10 days of paid sick leave for federally regulated workers who are not already covered by employer plans. The NDP is likewise promising 10 days’ paid sick leave, and both parties are promising variations on a move towards $10-per-day daycare – something that might address the disproportionate burden placed on women compelled to leave the workforce to take care of children.

Annie Dormuth, provincial affairs director for B.C. and Alberta for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), said the promise of paid sick leave raises concerns for small business who may have to shoulder the burden of that promise.

Key NDP planks for workers include:

•a minimum wage, starting at $15 an hour and rising to $20 an hour for federally regulated employees;

•changes to employment insurance (EI) to allow workers to receive benefits even if they quit their job, if the reason for quitting is to go to school, take care of children or health-related;

•a low-income supplement to top up EI benefits to $2,000 a month;

•a ban on unpaid internships, unless tied to education programs;

•new anti-scab legislation that bans replacement workers in labour disputes; and

•a requirement that part-time and contract workers receive the same benefits, like extended health, that full-time workers receive.

The Conservative platform promises a new “super EI” program that would temporarily increase the benefits to 75% from 55% of salaries when someone is laid off in a province that is deemed to be in recession – defined as a 0.5% increase of the unemployment rate. It would drop back to 55% when the recession ends.

They are also promising to double the Canada Workers Benefit – and pay it out in quarterly direct deposits, rather than as a year-end tax refund – and double the federal disability supplement to $1,500 from $713.

The Conservatives are also promising a new social safety net for the 1.7 million Canadians who are self-employed in the gig economy. Because neither they nor their employers pay into federal programs like the Canada Pension Plan or employment insurance, they can’t collect EI when laid off.

The Conservatives propose a new Employee Savings Account that employers would have to pay into every time they pay a contract worker. Gig workers would be able to draw on the account when they are laid off or retire.

For people unable to work due to illness, the Conservatives would also extend EI benefit eligibility to 52 weeks from 15 for employees undergoing treatment for cancer or other serious illnesses.

Workers in sectors like construction or energy often incur moving, transportation and accommodation expenses when moving to other provinces for work. The Conservatives are therefore promising a new Construction Mobility Tax Credit that would allow these workers to subtract up to $4,000 per year of temporary relocation expenses from taxable income.

As for unions, the Conservatives acknowledge that some large employers in Canada have a history of “anti-labour activity,” and therefore pledge changes to the Canada Labour Code to “remove barriers that prevent unions from organizing large employers.”

The Conservatives also propose to give unions “standing” at the Canada International Trade Tribunal to allow them to propose actions like anti-dumping charges against companies and countries with unfair trade practices.

The Conservative platform acknowledges that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Unlike the Liberals and NDP, who are promising $10 a day daycare, the Conservatives would convert the federal child care expense deduction into a refundable tax credit that covers up to 75% of the cost of child care for lower-income families.

Anything that improves access to daycare is something that has a positive impact on the labour market, Antunes said, because it would allow more women to enter and stay in the workforce.

“I think, just in general, to encourage the labour force participation rates for young women, that would be positive for the economy,” Antunes said. “Our analysis suggests that these things kind of pay for themselves, long-term.”

All three parties are promising to create more jobs in Canada. But there are many sectors, from hospitality to construction, that already can’t fill vacancies because of the country’s lack of skilled workers.

“I don’t know that Canada is in such a situation where it’s really lacking for job creation,” Antunes. “We have job vacancies across the board in many industries, and it’s not so much a lack of jobs – it’s a lack of having matching skills and training.”

The skilled-worker crunch has been exacerbated recently by declining immigration inflows, which Antunes said fell from 340,000 in 2019 to 185,000 in 2020, due to the pandemic.

He added that he isn’t seeing much from the major parties with respect to addressing this shock to the labour supply through immigration.