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Worker Struggles that Shaped Canadian Labour Relations in 2021

From the minimum wage, to precarious work to unemployment benefits, 2021 was a year of intense struggle

Through 2021, COVID-19 continued to expose many flaws in Canada’s labour laws and employment standards, creating opportunities for reform and change.

Throughout, labour groups have fought hard on multiple fronts to ensure any new changes provide material improvements to workers’ lives, instead of giving bosses more power and lining employer’s pockets.

Here are six key workers’ struggles that came to the forefront in 2021. 

Paid Sick Days

Workers have fought for paid sick days long before the pandemic. As government health policies came under increased public scrutiny, workers had an opportunity to force politicians to act. Labour groups across Canada, but especially in British Columbia and Ontario, campaigned for ten paid sick days in federal and provincial employment standards. 

In April, Ontario introduced a temporary, paid leave benefit capped at three days. BC introduced five paid sick days into employment standards legislation. Labour organizations were disappointed with both of these responses, proving just how hostile Canadian governments across the political spectrum can be to workers.

The federal government passed a federal paid sick leave policy in December which provides 10 paid sick days, but covers only about 10% of workers in Canada. Workers and health experts argue,the legislation has major problems in its current form, with workers only able to access the full 10 days until 10 months on the job.

Minimum Wages

Employers’ complained about “labour shortages” through much of 2021, while labour groups pointed out that many employers refused to offer decent wages or safe working conditions.

Justin Trudeau finally announced a $15 federal minimum wage — slated to come into effect on December 29, 2021. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, despite cancelling a minimum wage increase in 2018, was finally pressured to increase the minimum wage to $15 as well.

Now, Ontario workers are fighting for a $20 minimum wage, which more accurately reflects the rising costs of living. However, the minimum wages in many other provinces, like Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick, remain dismally low.

Fight against Uber’s lobbying, worker misclassification

Early in 2021, Uber began lobbying the provinces to rewrite labour laws and create a ‘new underclass of worker.’ Uber falsely claimed it would not be able to offer drivers benefits without making changes to current employment standards.

Gig workers and labour lawyers sounded the alarm, pointing out that Uber was using the same misinformation tactics it had in creating a third category of worker through a referendum in California. The referendum ultimately excluded gig workers from basic employment standards like access to EI and minimum wages, though it was later struck down as unconstitutional.

During the 2021 federal election, the Conservatives made a concerted effort to appear more worker-friendly and proposed a plan to provide benefits for gig workers. Gig workers quickly pointed out that O’Toole’s plan was ‘carbon copied’ from Uber’s proposals and that the Conservatives’ chief of policy was in fact a former Uber lobbyist.

Unfortunately, none of the other federal parties meaningfully addressed misclassification in their platforms either.

Now, Ontario’s Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee has recommended creating a “third category” of worker, similar to Uber’s proposals.

Amazon/Teamsters Election

The Teamsters passed a resolution to take on Amazon at their international convention in June 2021. A few months later, the Teamsters announced a cross-Canada union drive at nine Amazon warehouses.

In November, the Teamsters experienced an historic shake up in leadership. A slate backed by the grassroots group Teamsters for a Democratic Union was elected to the executive, promising an increased focus on worker engagement and building worker power.  The union is already organizing its 300,000 members to build a credible strike threat ahead of negotiations with UPS, which holds the largest private sector contract in the country.

The shake up at the Teamsters  and the results of the UPS negotiations will have significant implications for its attempt to organize Amazon warehouses in Canada.

More migrant workers win permanent residency

In April, the federal government announced 90,000 migrant workers would be able to obtain permanent residency. This was a huge victory for migrant workers who had organized across Canada for permanent status upon arrival. However, this new federal program filled up quickly and had many restrictions on who would be approved. It also did not change the fundamental nature of the temporary foreign worker program which allows employers to deport workers at whim.

An auditor general report found that the federal government failed to ensure farms protected migrant workers from outbreaks.

In Ontario, many migrant workers have also gotten organized.

The trucking sector is one of the biggest recruiters of temporary foreign workers, next to agriculture. Truckers in Brampton, many of whom lack status, are organizing against wage theft through the Naujawan Support Network.

Fixing Employment Insurance

The pandemic highlighted how ill-equipped the current Employment Insurance system was to support workers who lost their jobs. 

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the subsequent Canadian Recovery Benefit were introduced to allow more workers to access financial support in a short period of time. The CRB ended on October 23, 2021, despite protests from workers’ groups, leaving workers to again rely on EI. 

The federal government also implemented small reforms to make EI more accessible, and announced consultations to further improve the system. Given how much employers complained about workers receiving CERB and the CRB during the pandemic, labour groups will have a significant fight on their hands to ensure the business lobby is not the dominant voice shaping the future of Employment Insurance.

Workers groups continue to call on the federal government to reinstate pandemic financial supports in response to the more transmissible Omicron variant.

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