With no other explanation, other than to dismiss the legislation as “unnecessary red tape”, one deeply buried line of Bill C-38, the Conservative government’s 2012 Budget Bill states: “The Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act is repealed”. And with these 10 words the Conservatives ‘Trojan Horse’ bill, as it has come to be called, will wipe out a 1985 law requiring that successful bidders on federal construction contracts must pay the prevailing wage and overtime after 48 hrs/week whether unionized or not.
This Act was meant to take wages out of competition so that contractors would win a contract based on merit, skill and productivity, and not on their ability to find the cheapest labour. One of Canada’s largest consumers of construction industry services is the federal government, and includes military bases, prisons, ports, banking and telecommunications. Since the federal Canada Labour Code applies to projects that cross provincial borders this legislation will also enable cheap construction of pipelines, as the contractors will no longer be subject to federal fair wage standards.
Combined with other recent Conservative legislation that allows contractors to get temporary foreign workers within 10 days, eradicating fair wages and hours from the law is yet another nail in the coffin for Canadian labour rights. International brokers, or as NDP MP Pat Martin recently described them, ‘labour pimps’, peddle foreign workers from all over the world for construction projects. Soon, all a company will have to do is post an ad in the paper saying carpenters are wanted for $8.00 an hour, no overtime, no benefits. In the likely event that nobody applies within 10 days, the international labour pimps can be called to provide all the manpower needed at the prevailing provincial minimum wage. It doesn’t take imagination to see how such easy access to cheap labour will drive down construction costs on the backs of Canadian workers in the largest-employing industry sector in the country, and the trickle-down effect this will have on the economy.
We must never forget the government’s $50 billion theft of the Employment Insurance (EI) fund that was turned into slush fund of tax deductions for the richest corporations such as banks and oil companies. I say richest corporations because companies that were breaking even or losing money, like those in the export sector hit hard by the downturn in the global economy, were not eligible for these benefits. Of course they still had to pay into the stripped EI fund which currently denies claims to 60% of Canada’s unemployed workers. On top of all that, once C-38 is passed, eligibility will become much harder and it will be up to the minister to decide who can collect.
The government insists these and other measures, like habitually destroying collective bargaining negotiations with back-to-work legislation, will be good for the economy. In my opinion, what is good for the economy are well-paid workers with enough security to buy homes, support their communities and shop in local businesses, not people who are driven to the poorhouse by a government intent on eliminating every opportunity to do so.
Alex Atamanenko is the MP for BC Southern Interior.