Essential workers kept Canada going during COVID-19. What’s on offer for them in the federal election?
Brampton truck driver Gurmukh Singh is an essential worker who kept goods moving across Canada as the country wrestled with a global pandemic — a task he says often prompted fear for his own safety and that of his colleagues.
On top of COVID risks, Singh is bearing another burden: he’s owed some £20,000 in unpaid wages, according to a recent decision issued by the federal labour ministry. But months after he first filed the complaint, Singh says he’s still out of pocket.
That’s because his employer, Cargo County, is appealing the federal order to pay, arguing Singh is an independent contractor, according to the case file reviewed by the Star; the company denies allegations against it. Unlike employees, contractors don’t have the right to basic protections like overtime pay.
It’s exactly the type of dispute that makes this election matter.
As an interprovincial trucker, Singh’s experience on the job is defined by standards set in Ottawa — and by how they’re enforced.
“When I look at labour law reforms, I tend to always look at what they’re doing for the most vulnerable workers, the people who are at the sharp edge of the labour market,” said Judy Fudge, a labour law scholar and professor of labour studies at McMaster University.
Just under one million workers nationwide fall under federal regulation, including long haul trucking, banking, air travel and railway sectors. Many were hard hit by COVID, from waves of layoffs to safety concerns. In Peel region, the health unit has identified at least 2,000 cases amongst truck drivers, the vast majority of whom are racialized.
While federal rules directly impact a minority of Canadian employees, they are important — not least as an example to the provinces, said Deena Ladd of the Toronto-based Workers’ Action Centre.
“The Canadian government federally has an opportunity to set incredibly important labour standards which, more and more, are public health standards,” she said. “The elections are an opportunity to double down on, and send a strong message to the provinces that if we can do it nationally, you should be able to do this provincially.”
In that sense, Ladd said she’s pleased to see the inclusion of 10 paid sick days and a commitment to a £15 minimum wage in both Liberal and NDP platforms.
The Liberals have already passed legislation on the minimum wage front; if elected, the measure would come into effect later this year and tie future increases to inflation. The NDP, on the other hand, says it will eventually scale up to a £20 minimum wage.
In a statement to the Star, a spokesperson for the Conservative party said it would back a £15 minimum wage too. A splashy piece of the party’s labour platform also focuses on the gig economy, promising to give independent contractors the “protection they need.”
That, the platform says, means requiring “gig economy companies” to pay into a new portable Employee Savings Account.
But the name of the proposed program raises questions, said Fudge: app workers — along with workers like Singh — are vulnerable precisely because their bosses don’t always classify them as employees, notes Fudge.
“It’s a misnomer to call it an employee savings account because if these people are employees, treat them like employees.”
The Conservative proposal echoes the one pitched by Uber itself at Queen’s Park earlier this year, which says the government should require the industry to provide all gig workers with “self-directed benefits” that workers can withdraw in cash, while cementing their independent contractor status.
Conservative party director of scripting and policy Dan Mader was, until this August, a lobbyist for Uber at Queen’s Park, according to the provincial records.
In a statement responding to the Star’s questions about Mader’s role in formulating the party’s gig economy plan, a spokesperson said he “recused himself from decisions on this matter.”
To Ladd, the details of the CPC proposal “completely missed the boat.”
“What gig workers need is, at the minimum, to get access to what other workers get. And then of course improve those protections and improve those benefits for everybody.”
App companies’ reliance on the independent contractor designation is facing increasing legal scrutiny in Canada and elsewhere, with critics — and some legal rulings — calling it misclassification. The NDP’s platform doesn’t address the issue directly but in response to questions from the Star, a spokesperson said the party “strongly believe that all employees, no matter their industry, should be treated equally.”
“That includes our party’s long-standing commitment to living wages, access to benefits and good family supporting jobs.”
Ottawa also began consultations earlier this year exploring gig economy reforms.
On top of reforms to employment insurance, the Liberal platform says it will “strengthen rights for workers employed by digital platforms so that they are entitled to job protections under the Canada Labour Code,” although it does not specifically say gig workers will be designated employees.
The gig economy’s employment model is crucial to get to grips with, said Julia Smith, assistant professor of labour studies at the University of Manitoba.
“If that type of employee relationship is allowed to continue and expand, we’re going to see it in other industries.”
That is already Gurmukh Singh’s reality: his disputed employment status means he’s still waiting on the thousands of dollars in overtime and other entitlements he believes he is owed.
“This is a difficult life, this profession,” he said. “Canada is a reputable country, but still I’m feeling the laws are not strong enough. If there was some kind of punishment for these companies, then they would not do that.”
When it comes to addressing precarious work more generally, one proposal that sets the NDP apart from rivals is its commitment to equal pay for temporary workers, said Ladd. The party has pledged to require employers to provide the same compensation to temps, who often make significantly less for doing the same job as permanent employees and usually do not have health benefits.
“It’s basically a systemic measure to tackle not only workplace inequities, but racism as well,” said Ladd, noting that temp agency workers are disproportionately racialized.
All three major party platforms address union rights too.
The Liberal government has already implemented card check certification, a prized measure for the labour movement that makes it easier for workers to join a union. It also pledges to introduce anti-scab legislation for workers locked out by their employer during a labour dispute — but the platform does not say if the reforms would ban employers from using replacement staff when workers are on strike.
The NDP’s platform says it will “ban the use of replacement workers in labour disputes — for good.” Meanwhile, the Conservative party says it will “remove barriers that prevent unions from organizing large employers with a history of anti-labour activities.”
It’s clear that the Tories hope to snatch union votes away from competitors, resulting in a greater focus on workers: the term appears 108 times in the party’s current platform, compared to a dozen times in its 2019 version. Other promises include a pledge to require large federally regulated companies to put employee representatives on their boards of directors.
“The problem with this is that it tends to be smoke and mirrors,” said Fudge.
The measure is a positive one in places like Germany, she said, but that’s because it’s combined with other protections like much stronger, sector-wide unions.
“Just giving workers a place on the board really doesn’t give them much without the other sort of pieces that Germany has.”
As for other workers deemed essential, some — like migrant workers — currently have little prospect of joining a union; in Ontario, farm labourers can’t unionize. While these workers are governed by provincial employment laws, critics note that immigration policies set in Ottawa have a fundamental impact on working conditions.
Groups like Migrant Workers Alliance for Change have long called for permanent residency upon arrival, and have called a recent program to provide permanent status for 90,000 migrant workers an important but insufficient step. All three major parties say they will continue to create “paths” to permanent residency for temporary foreign workers, but details are scant.
“The pandemic has really shown us how critical that protection is,” said Ladd. “Especially coming out of COVID with all the deaths on the farm, and people not having any access to emergency protections and benefits.”
The Green party’s platform, meanwhile, is thin on specific labour policies, but says investing in green industries will create “reliable, long-term jobs.” The party is also pledging to institute a “guaranteed livable income” to “eliminate poverty.”
There’s one other measure experts call critical to supporting workers across Canada — although it doesn’t appear under the Canada Labour Code.
“Universal child care is going to be key,” said Smith.
An affordable, accessible system would allow low-wage women not just to re-enter the workforce, but participate in things like retraining programs to exit precarious jobs, added Ladd.
“When you don’t have that, you are trapped in this never ending cycle of poor working conditions.”
Both the NDP and Liberals are promising a £10-a-day child care system.
The Conservatives are promising a refundable tax credit, which falls short of the labour movement’s call for a universal system.
“This is a long-standing issue feminists and labour activists have been arguing for,” said Smith. “It’s something that governments, especially during elections, will talk about.
The follow through is what’s been missing.”
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