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OPINION: Review and update

Jillian Kilfoil, right, Marie Burge, centre, and Marcia Carroll listen to one of the speakers during a Jan. 9 press conference in Charlottetown as they call for an update to the Employment Standards Act. The three are members of P.E.I.’s Working Group for Livable Income.

The Guardian / Ryan Ross
Jillian Kilfoil, right, Marie Burge, centre, and Marcia Carroll listen to one of the speakers during a Jan. 9 press conference in Charlottetown as they call for an update to the Employment Standards Act. The three are members of P.E.I.’s Working Group for Livable Income. The Guardian / Ryan Ross - The Guardian

Community engagement essential in updating P.E.I.’s Employment Standards Act

BY ANN WHEATLEY

AND DAVID WEBSTER

GUEST OPINION

P.E.I.’s Working Group for Livable Income (WGLI) has been following the story of the Tim Hortons franchise owners in Ontario who have reacted to an increase in that province’s minimum wage by reducing benefits to their employees. Other businesses are also revising practices related to treatment of their employees.

WGLI members note that the ensuing public debate around minimum wage and the reaction of these employers brings attention to the need for strong employment standards, including legislation that would have provided clear direction and limits to balancing the rights of workers with the rights of employers to maintain viable businesses.

As in Ontario, the P.E.I. Employment Standards Act is the only instrument of protection for the rights of non-unionized workers – and in Canada that’s a whopping 70 per cent of workers. The Act is especially important for the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers.

That’s why the Working Group for a Livable Income (WGLI) is calling for a significant review and update to the province’s Employment Standards Act. While there have been ongoing minor adjustments to the Act over the years, there have also been many changes in workplace environments and in other policies and legislations to support a full consultative review.

In the 12 years since the Act was last reviewed, there has been a rapid redefinition of work affecting all aspects of life for Islanders. Part-time work and short-term contracts are more common, digital technology has changed how and where people work and communicate, and automation is threatening to displace workers in sectors as diverse as manufacturing and agriculture.

As our population grows and becomes more diverse, more of our workers face challenges with language and adapting to a new culture and community. The number of migrant workers employed in P.E.I. continues to rise.

At a recent media news conference, WGLI members spoke about the need to ensure that the Act supports gender equality, enhanced dealing with workplace harassment, flexible parental and caregiving leave, and leave for victims of domestic violence.

Panel members spoke about the particular needs and rights of people living with disabilities, the most unemployed and under-employed people in our communities, noting that 90 per cent of complaints filed at the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission are related to work and disability.

They spoke about the needs and rights of migrant workers, including the need to regulate the recruitment industry and to address the lack of protections for agricultural workers in the current Act. The challenges faced by all these groups reinforce the need for a significant update to the Act.

With any form of consultation, it would be important to acknowledge the increasing diversity of the workforce, and to engage with those who live with these realities every day, and with those who work on their behalf. Equally important would be to include employers from a variety of sectors in this consultation process.

While the employment standards are a minimum requirement, there is also a good case for ensuring “decent work” by elevating workplace practices above the legislated employment standards. Employers who provide decent workplace environments will find that they will be able to retain their employers for a longer time, and will find that these employees will be more productive and engaged in their work.

WGLI encourages employees and employers to become familiar with current employment standards within the Act, to have discussions together focused on improving standards with a goal of achieving decent work within productive environments, and to seek opportunities to encourage and participate in a full review of the Employment Standards Act.

The WGLI has a long-term goal of establishing a system of guaranteed livable income for Islanders, and while addressing that goal, continues to support and develop strong poverty reduction strategies.

- Ann Wheatley (Cooper Institute) and David Webster (United Way of PEI) are members of P.E.I.’s Working Group for Livable Income

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