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Analysis

Jason Kenney’s Labour Reforms Are ‘Arbitrary’ and ‘Ridiculous’, Workers’ Rights Advocates Say

Kenney praised big business lobby group’s proposals to lower wages and gut labour laws

Lower wages and gutted labour laws are a few things Albertans can expect from a government led by Jason Kenney, workers’ rights advocates warn.

Speaking at an event hosted by Restaurants Canada, the United Conservative Party leader told a right-wing business lobby group that gains made by Alberta workers over the last four years have been unfair to business owners.

“You don’t have a minimum wage,” Kenney told restaurant bosses. “You don’t have any guaranteed benefits, you don’t have any collective bargaining agreement.”

To level the playing field for bosses, the UCP leader praised a controversial set of recommendations put forward by the lobbyists, including overhauling holiday pay rules and creating  loopholes allowing employers to pay “youth” and “inexperienced employees” and alcohol servers at rates below the minimum wage.

“I’ve read this in detail,” Kenney told the lobby group, adding he sent his assistant an “e-mail at about 2:30 in the morning with about 24 detailed follow questions. I take this stuff serious and you will see that reflected in our election platform.”

Others at the lobby group’s event reportedly went so far as to suggest employers should be allowed to pay people with disabilities below the minimum wage, as well.

Daniel Huber, longtime restaurant owner and advocate for workers in the industry, is  critical of the recommendations Kenney praised.

“A rollback wage is ridiculous. Equal pay for equal work is very straightforward, but it’s low hanging fruit to go after workers,” Huber told PressProgress.

“For every restaurant owner saying they’ve been getting pounded by the economic situation, restaurant workers have been getting equally screwed over, if not screwed over more.”

Huber says he was once a member of Restaurants Canada, but opted out within a year when it became clear to him they lobbied for larger chain restaurants rather than smaller businesses.

“As a business owner myself I sympathize with the increased costs, but when the going gets tough I don’t turn to grinding my workers,” Huber said.

Labour costs for restaurant operators are typically on par with food costs in Canada. Restaurants Canada itself cites food costs as the number one challenge for restaurant operatorsFood prices went up somewhere between 8 and 14 per cent in the last two years in Alberta, according to Huber.

According to the recent annual report by Dalhousie University, the trend of rising food prices will continue in 2019. Albertans will face a cost increase of up to 3.5 per cent in 2019, and up to 6 per cent for vegetables.

Restaurants Canada has also called for the repeal of recent changes to Workers Compensation Board pay, something Kenney promised the lobby group would be in the UCP platform.

“You’ve called for the repeal of some of these ridiculous new regulatory positions around WCB pay and changes and stat holiday pay,” Kenney said.

“All of that will be included in the United Conservative government’s bill number two: ‘Open for business act’.”

Patrick Rodriguez, the Alberta Federation of Labour’s Policy Director, says Kenney would be “arbitrarily slashing premiums for political reasons in an attempt to save employers costs,” something he says “will weaken the WCB system.”

“The WCB Act requires the WCB to be fully funded, meaning they need to have the money to provide benefits and supports to injured workers,” Rodriguez told PressProgress. 

“Kenney is trying to pull Alberta back out of the Canadian mainstream and into a situation where we are an outlier when it comes to ensuring worker safety and protecting workers rights.”

“The WCB is hitting its funded ratio target,” Rodriguez added. “They should not face political interference.”

According to Alex Shevalier, President of the Calgary and District Labour Council, before workers compensation was reformed by the Notley government, the WCB had been functioning as an insurance company.

“The changes were made to reflect that it is there to compensate injured workers,” Shevalier told PressProgress.

It’s there to help injured workers, it’s not there to manage the system so that they can lower premiums every year, so that they can return as much money to the employers as they can which is what was happening.”

According to federal lobbying records, Restaurants Canada lobbied Kenney extensively during his time as Stephen Harper’s employment minister, notably on issues that included changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

 

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