Canada isn’t living up to International Commitments

This is the first of a series of posts that aim to
discuss the most daunting issues facing organized labour today. Globalization
and its many ramifications will be discussed in later posts, but for starters
it seems appropriate to begin with international labour standards and,
specifically, with Canada’s gross failure to live up to those standards.

Canada has long paid lip service to the notion of
strong international labour standards, vigorously supporting the adoption of
International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions. Supporting the adoption of
a Convention as an International standard, however, is one thing. Ratifying the
Convention and making it part of domestic Canadian law is quite another. Of the
189 Conventions adopted by the ILO, Canada has ratified a mere 34 of them.
Worse still, only 32 of these 34 Conventions are actually in force as part of
Canadian law.

There are 183 member states of the ILO. While not
being a lone wolf, Canada has certainly distinguished itself as being one of a
minority of member states which has refused to ratify all eight of the ILO’s
core Conventions. These core Conventions have been recognized as being crucial
to the protection of human rights. Despite this country’s purported respect for
human rights, Canada has refused to ratify two of the eight Conventions, namely
Convention No. 98 –
the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining, 1949;
and Convention No. 138 – Minimum
Age, 1973

Canada far exceeds any of the other member states
in the number of complaints that workers’ organizations have brought to the
ILO. Between 1982 and 2002 Canada had more than five times as many ILO complaints
brought against than the member with the second highest number of complaints. In
an overwhelming majority of those complaint cases the ILO has found that Canada
had violated the principle of freedom of association, which is contained in the
ILO’s most fundamental Convention – Convention
87, Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize.

Though Convention 87 is one of the small number of
Conventions Canada has actually ratified, this country often violates the
Convention via restrictive labour laws. The ILO has noted that under Convention

…all workers without distinction whatsoever (with the sole possible
exception of the armed forces and the police) shall have the right to organize
under the Convention. Therefore, any provincial legislation that would deny or
limit the full application of the Convention in relation to the freedom of
association…should be amended[2].

In its report, the ILO noted twenty instances where
governments in Canada have not only passed restrictive labour laws that
unjustly limited workers’ fundamental rights under the Convention, but have
also refused to amend these labour laws once found to contravene the Convention[3].

Sadly, Canada has shown a consistent, almost
pathological, lack of support for International Labour Conventions in anything
but name. Canada has been more than willing to support the adoption of
Conventions as international standards but has been equally unwilling either to
ratify these Conventions or abide by the Conventions once ratified.

Canadian workers have been left without the security
these Conventions are meant to provide. With governments on the provincial and
federal levels that would actively seek to circumvent protections for workers,
one can’t help but wonder what the point of ratifying a Convention is if it
will just be ignored anyway.

This is a fundamental problem which must be
addressed in a proactive manner. People must be reminded of our international
labour commitments. We must, at the very least, be able to expect our
governments to honour the commitments it has made. With the litany of
challenges facing organized labour, the task of facing an increasingly
vociferous anti-union chorus is made ever more daunting by actions of our
governments which would seek to undermine union security and the right to
collective bargaining.

The enormity of this problem is matched only by its
absurdity. The blatant disregard for international labour commitments enables
many of the other challenges facing organized labour today. From right-to-work
legislation to legislation that would limit the right to strike to the many
challenges presented by globalization it’s sometimes easy to feel that there
isn’t a friendly face left.  The good
news is that, in recent times, Canadian Courts have been uncharacteristically
friendly toward organized labour.

The Courts have shown more respect for international
labour commitments than the government that entered into those commitments.
Between the respect being shown by the Courts and the solidarity of the unions,
there is hope that organized labour will weather the undignified assaults on
labour rights perpetrated by our governments. It is widely recognized that the
middle class is crucial to a healthy economy and a healthy country. Unions are
a pivotal part of the middle class. In eschewing the international rights of
domestic workers, Canada is like the dog that mistakes its tail for an enemy – its
only harming itself.

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