Estimates Debate: Labour Ministry

MLA Sonia Furstenau

Transcript 3CSA:1130-1150

S. Furstenau: Thanks to the opposition critic. This is the time we've organized for some of our questions. I appreciate the opportunity to ask the Minister of Labour some questions at this time.

I want to start with the precarious work question for the minister. Anything outside of full-time, permanent, benefits-associated work is increasingly becoming the new normal in British Columbia. Gig workers, contracted workers, part-time employees, seasonal, temporary work, irregular hours and more aspects of our modern workforce now make up a significant majority of employment in our province.

These workers are those without a sufficient safety net in terms of employment benefits like health care and sick pay; lesser financial security, like the ability to secure a mortgage; and sometimes the inability to qualify for federal programs like employment insurance. There exists a very significant disparity across the range of workers from those in truly precarious positions, like those who are underpaid without benefits, to those who may be making in excess of six figures by consulting independently. So it doesn't fit into a single category, this type of work.

I would be interested to know from the Minister of Labour: how does his government define precarious work?

Hon. H. Bains: Thanks to the member for the question. It is, I think, a very, very important question. As the economy changes, the way we do work changes, and it brings its own challenges as a result of that. The member knows that. We've seen more and more precarious work.

We have no definition in my ministry of how to describe precarious work. Others may have. But we all know that there are people who are working two, three, maybe more jobs in order to make ends meet.

In our ministry, we are making changes to make sure that the people who are at the lowest end of the financial rung are supported. That's how we made the changes to the minimum wage. We're going to be at $15.20 on June 1, 2021.

Right now I believe we're sitting at about second or third highest in the country.

At the same time, we have some other vulnerable workers like temporary foreign workers. We brought in legislation to protect those workers. Recruiters now have to be licensed, and we are working on having the employer also register with the employment standards branch. We added resources to the employment standards branch to ensure that we are on the proactive side of the enforcement rather than reactive, as it was in the last 16 years.

I think we're doing everything that we can in our ministry, within our mandate, to help those people who need the most help. Many of those precarious workers….

I might add that the member may have heard a story today; a decision may be coming from the Supreme Court of Canada. I think those precarious workers have won a huge victory at the Supreme Court of Canada, Heller v. Uber, where they were told that in order to resolve your dispute, you need to go to the Netherlands for mediation and arbitration. You know it would be almost impossible for any workers to travel to the Netherlands to deal with their issues.

We are doing everything we can to make sure that we remove the roadblocks, the barriers to justice for workers. In fact, we got rid of the self-help kit, in addition to all the other things that we are saying. So I think we're doing everything we can right now.

But it's not lost on us. It's certainly not lost on me that the precarious workers need protection, and we are not there yet. It is very live with me and for our government.

S. Furstenau: I appreciate the minister's comments on this. I think it's interesting to note that if precarious workers, as in the case you cite just now, the case at the Supreme Court of Canada, have to find themselves using the courts in order to fight for their rights as workers, that is a very strong indication that there is legislative work to be done to protect these workers.

That is not how people should have to get protection for their rights as workers, by going to the Supreme Court. As the minister would know, that would be unavailable to a lot of people, to be able to pursue that as an avenue. It's an excellent indication that there's legislative work to do.

Further, on the question about…. The minister does not have a clear definition. I think one of the challenges with that is that it's very hard to start to collect really effective data that can then inform the decisions that need to be made legislatively.

Has the government, in any way, been collecting data on how the impacts of COVID-19 have been specifically impacting precarious workers in B.C.? If not, is there any plan to start collecting that data? If there has been data collected, how granular is it — year-to-year-based trends over time? Or is it just a beginning?

It's a lot of questions packed into one, but I'm hoping the minister can let us know what kinds of efforts are being made to really track the impacts on precarious workers as a result of COVID-19.

Hon. H. Bains: Let me answer this question this way. Our ministry does not collect data as far as the impact of COVID-19 and its impact on jobs. Other ministries are doing it. Advanced Education and the Ministry of Jobs collect data.

As we all know, though, the hardest hit areas during COVID-19 are the hospitality, tourism, retail and restaurant industries. As you know, many of those are lower-paid and part-time workers. Certainly, it has the biggest impact on those workers.

I think as the economy improves, as we reopen, as the Premier announced phase 3…. I think the first priority of all the government ministries was to make sure that we maintained health and safety and protected the health and safety of our citizens. Then, under the guidelines of Dr. Bonnie Henry and the guidelines prepared in conjunction with the WCB, we open up the economy in a safe manner so that when we move forward, we continue to slow the spread of COVID-19 and the virus.

I think we've been successful so far. But like I said before, and as you have suggested, the precarious work, the part-time work…. I came to know anecdotally that ride-hailing drivers were not working. Not very many were working during the pandemic. But now, as the economy opens up, and people feel more comfortable with their health, they are starting to utilize those services.

We, actually, especially in my ministry…. I'm looking at how we make sure that the people in every sector, whether they are full-time workers, part-time workers, precarious workers, the new economy…. How do we, one, protect their health and safety, and two, that they are paid fair wages…? I think that's where we are going to go.

We had a lot to do in the last three years. We've been here, as you know, only three years. We have achieved much, and much more to do.

Also, another area — I will leave it with you — is the exclusions. You may know that there are a number of occupations that are excluded from employment standards. We will be looking at that. We haven't had real time to delve into that. Then there are areas of the new economy and how people work — as you have mentioned, precarious work. We will be looking at that as we move forward.

Thank you for the question.

S. Furstenau: A little bit further on this, picking up on the comments that the minister made about protecting health and safety.

Another very significant issue that has arisen as a result of COVID-19 and the impacts has been around workers who do not feel that they can take sick days. Here in British Columbia, obviously, we saw an outbreak in a poultry-processing facility as a result of workers feeling that they weren't able to take sick days. As we continue in this pandemic and the uncertainty that it brings with it, paid sick leave and security for workers are going to be really essential to be able to ensure that people are following the directives of the health officer to not go out and to not work when they're sick.

My question for the minister is: can he give us some insight into where things are at with implementing sick pay for employees in B.C. and whether changes that he sees at this time would be permanent? Who does he expect would be covering the costs associated with sick pay — the employers, the province, the federal government? It would be great to get some insight into where we're at with that conversation.

Hon. H. Bains: Another very good question and very timely. As the member knows, we've seen cases where workers were working when they were sick, when they should not have been working. That caused a lot of problems and also helped spread the virus.

It's not the workers' fault. I think they're torn. They stay home, and then they get hit economically. They go to work, and then the virus is spread and transmitted to other workers. It hits the employer and their ability to operate. The business ended up being shut down, in one case. I think it was a lose-lose situation.

That's why we felt it was important that workers who are sick, who are showing signs, flu-like symptoms, should have stayed home. Again, it's an economic hardship that they face. They know the rent still has to be paid. They know the mortgage still has to be paid. They know there are other expenses — groceries and clothes for children.

They still need an income, and they can't afford to stay home. I think those are very, very challenging times for the workers and for the employers, for that matter. They both were hurting as a result of that.

The Premier, as you know, was very, very persistent, and he fought hard with the federal government, trying to bring other colleagues from other jurisdictions along. Finally, the federal government announced the $14 billion package. Part of that was sick leave. We were happy that the federal government listened and that, finally, that relief is there.

Right now, the details of how it's going to be implemented are being worked out between the federal government and the provinces. Once more details are worked out and the terms are worked out, we will be making that announcement. It will be a federal plan, paid for by the federal government, coming out of the $14 billion.

S. Furstenau: Can I just follow up on that very quickly with the minister? It will be a federal plan. But can the minister speak to the permanence of this plan? Is this just for right now, or does the minister see this as a permanent shift to guarantee that workers have access to sick pay?

Hon. H. Bains: As the federal government and the provinces are involved in this, I see this as time-limited to deal with the COVID-19 virus. I'm not sure whether we can make it permanent. I think we will continue to work with the federal government to see if we could put some permanency to it.

The Premier was very clear that we want to see that there are paid sick days available to workers here in B.C. and all across Canada for obvious reasons. But he also suggested that we don't want to add more burdens onto the employers, because they're also hurting already.

I think we have to find a solution. How do we make it permanent? Those dialogues, hopefully, will continue during the discussions that are taking place between the federal government and the province. What the outcome is, I think we'll see.

S. Furstenau: Just switching gears to a topic that is of great interest for the B.C. Green caucus: the emerging economy. As we begin an economic recovery from COVID-19, we really feel strongly that all efforts need to be forward-looking and investing in the emerging economy as opposed to the economy of the past and really focusing on bringing prosperity to people and to future generations.

Supporting the provincial workforce in the recovery from COVID-19 will take investment in new sectors that will result in more resilience for communities and for the whole province. My question…. It's a big one for the minister. If he could give us some insight into what kind of planning and what kind of work he's doing to ensure that recovery efforts are focused on the forward-looking, emerging economy in B.C.

Hon. H. Bains: I think, as the member may know, that the emerging economy task force, under the Ministry of Jobs, is working on this particular area. It shows that the government is very, very serious and keen in this particular area. We agree with the member that this is where I think our future lies. So we need to pay attention to this particular area.

The second piece is the Premier's economic recovery task force. They have businesses, labour representatives, NGOs and others, who discuss: "How do we utilize the $1.5 billion that is set aside to restart the economy?" I think those discussions take place there but, at the same time, also at the Ministry of Jobs. Member, maybe you need to inquire during those estimates and see where that ministry is, as far as the report on the emerging economy task force.

I move that the committee rise, report resolution and completion of the estimates of the Ministry of Education and report progress on the estimates of the Ministry of Labour.