Canada should enforce its own labour standards

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Columnists

Ratification of the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement is delayed because Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives want it to contain tougher labour standards. At least that is the story.

In fact, the Americans – with the quiet backing of Canada’s Liberal government – want only Mexico, the third country in the deal, to toughen its labour standards. They are quite happy with the status quo in their own countries.

They shouldn’t be. Workers in both Canada and the U.S. face serious barriers in their efforts to make a decent living.

True, Mexico’s low labour standards and wages pose a real problem for other North American workers. Manufacturers from Canada and the U.S. have moved their operations to Mexico to take advantage of its bargain-basement wage structure.

But that was the whole point of NAFTA. It was designed, in large part, to reduce wage growth in Canada and the U.S. It did so by putting highly paid workers in those countries in direct competition with Mexicans.

Mexican auto workers, for instance, make less than $4 an hour – a fraction of what their Canadian and American counterparts earn.

Still, it’s a bit rich for House Democrats to worry about this now. They had a chance to kill NAFTA at birth 26 years ago. So did Canada’s Liberals. Neither availed themselves of the opportunity.

What’s really galling, however, is the hypocrisy. Yes, Mexican labour standards are worse than those of its northern neighbours. But Canada and the U.S. are far from perfect.

In various U.S. states, so called right-to-work laws have made it near impossible to unionize employees.

Canada is more subtle. With the notable exception of Ontario’s ban on organizing farm workers, Canadian provinces don’t usually bother with blatant anti-union laws. Instead, they achieve much the same end through complex regulations that simply make union organization more difficult.

Provinces like Ontario let employers avoid labour standards, such as the right to vacation pay, by pretending that their workers are self-employed, independent contractors.

Provinces like Ontario have also deliberately not kept their labour laws in sync with the requirements of the new economy – one characterized by franchising, digital employment and part-time work.

More to the point, provinces like Ontario don’t enforce the labour standards that do exist. Citing budget constraints and an aversion to red tape, they cut back workplace inspections and respond inadequately to real complaints.

As my colleague Sara Mojtehedzadeh reported recently, Ontario workers can’t be assured of getting the wages they are owed even when the province’s labour ministry rules in their favour.

None of this is meant to suggest that Mexican wage rates and labour standards are adequate. As Mexican workers themselves know, they are not.

And as long as Canada remains in NAFTA, it is in our interest to side with the U.S. House Democrats in their efforts to raise Mexican labour standards.

But before Canada’s Liberal government gets too self-righteous, it might want to reflect on the problems with work, wages and labour standards in this country. We too have a long way to go.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/star-columnists/2019/11/28/canada-should-enforce-its-own-labour-standards.html

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