National Post

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Saturday, December 04, 1999

Labour code changes target stress on families
Proposal would offer unpaid leave, right to refuse overtime
Alan Toulin
National Post

OTTAWA - The federal government is considering changes to national labour law that would help ease the stress on Canadian families caused by increasing hours at work.

The proposed changes to the Canada Labour Code, outlined in a strategic policy paper for Human Resources and Development Canada (HRDC), would give workers the right to refuse overtime, to take time off in lieu of overtime pay and to take unpaid leave from work to spend time with their families.

The new standards would apply to the 700,000 or so Canadians who work in federally regulated industries, such as banking, telecommunications and transport. They represent about 10% of the country's labour force.

The policy paper says non-traditional work practices and long hours on the job have become a major problem for a substantial number of Canadian workers and their families.

The proposed changes to the labour code would form part of the federal government's so-called family agenda, outlined in this fall's Speech from the Throne.

The federal government has already announced it is extending maternity benefits for up to one year to give new parents more time off work to care for children.

"We've started consultations with business and labour already. At this point, everybody is bringing everything to the table but there is a commitment in the Speech from the Throne for more family-friendly workplaces," said a spokesman for Claudette Bradshaw, the Minister of Labour.

In developing the policy paper, HRDC officials met with workers, unions and employers on a range of topics and consulted with 32 focus groups across the country. "Both employers and workers placed considerable emphasis on the need for Canadian workplaces to be changed to aid family life, learning and other goals," the policy paper said.

The focus groups reported a growth in overtime, contract work and at-home work and increased pressure in the workplace from long hours, competition and technological change.

"These findings ... indicated a strong need for change in the Canadian workplace and a role for the [Canada Labour] Code in such changes," the policy paper said.

A recent Statistics Canada report said approximately 50% of Canadians between the ages of 25 and 44 are working so many hours they are not able to spend enough time with family and friends. Overall, men aged 25 to 44 who were married with children and working full-time averaged 48.6 hours of work and work-related activities per week, while women in the same category averaged 38.8 hours, an increase of two hours per week since 1992, when a similar survey was conducted.

The report also found that one in three Canadians in the same age group -- about three million men and women -- is dissatisfied with the balance between work and family life.

The HRDC policy paper pointed to the recent steps taken in the United States, where Bill Clinton, the president, has introduced the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act. It gives workers the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for family and medical reasons, including taking care of parents or close relatives.

The U.S. policy "represents an important illustration of how government can send an important message to business on the balancing of social and economic values," the HRDC paper said.

In setting out options for the federal government, the policy paper said the Canada Labour Code should be updated to allow workers the right to refuse overtime, the right to time off in lieu of overtime pay and the right to unpaid family and medical leave.

Currently, the code only puts a ceiling on overtime hours. Employers cannot make their employees work more than 48 hours per week unless they obtain a permit from the department of labour. The code has no provisions for family or medical leave.

Even though the labour code affects only those in federally regulated industries, it is influential in setting standards across the country for other labour legislation, most of which falls under the purview of provincial governments.

"[The proposed] legislative changes would be seen as sending a powerful message to business, regarding government's broader social orientation as the U.S. government has done with the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act," the paper said.

The paper also suggested changes in the code to make it more flexible by allowing employers and employees to negotiate labour standards suitable to their industries but within the broad guidelines protecting the basic rights of workers.

As well, the paper suggested the government can use the code in an information and education campaign to establish more family-friendly workplaces. Under the auspices of the labour code, the federal government can bring employees and employers together in partnerships to conduct research, determine best practices in industry and run pilot programs as tests for policy development.

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