With Canada’s next federal election only six months away, IBEW leaders and activists are reminding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party majority in Parliament that they have not yet made good on one of their 2015 campaign pledges: to bring back the country’s federal fair wages law.
“Our members campaigned alongside our brothers and sisters in the larger labour community to help get these candidates friendly to our causes elected to office in 2015,” said First District International Vice President Thomas Reid. “Their promise to restore a federal fair wages law was one of the reasons we supported them.”
Operating in much the same way as the U.S. government’s Davis-Bacon Act, Canada’s Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act had for years mandated locally determined prevailing wage policies, which, among other things, prevented suppliers from using substandard wages as bargaining chips when competing for federally funded contracts on construction, remodeling, and other projects.
But for years, Merit Canada, a small but vocal open-shop lobbying group, had pressured Parliament to repeal the act, citing, among other false claims, that the law unfairly favored union shops over nonunion ones.
“In reality, the law allowed any contractor, whether they were union or nonunion, to bid on federal jobs, as long as they also paid a livable wage,” Reid said.
Led by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the majority Conservative government in 2012 abolished the act, buried within an omnibus budget bill. Once that budget bill became law, contractors across Canada had free rein only to pay the surrounding territory’s or province’s minimum wage on new federally funded projects and any procurement the federal government undertook.
“Now, employers can lower their bids on the backs of working people by driving down their wages to provincial minimums that aren’t in line with industry standards,” Reid said. “And who pays for this race to the bottom? Working people, their families and their communities.”
Shortly after his party took power following the 2015 general elections, however, Trudeau called on his government to work on a number of progressive priorities, including restoration of “a fair and balanced approach to organized labour by … implementing a modern Fair Wages Policy.”
“This would be a great way for the Liberal government to strengthen its broader labour strategy,” Reid said. “It could even drive contractors to regularly offer higher wages and better working conditions when bidding.”
All Canadians would benefit, he said, because contractors who consistently pay fair wages and stick to employment standards and labour laws historically have had workforces that are safer, more productive, and more efficient than their lower-paid counterparts.
“An updated, clear, and concise fair wages policy could help contractors on federal projects win work that’s based on the skilled workers they bring to their jobs, not on their business model of offering cheap wages,” Reid said.
Labour activists are hoping to see a new fair wages policy that goes further than the old one, containing provisions for such things as frequent reviews and transparent updates of wage schedules, wage rates that reflect a total compensation package including benefits and pensions, random site visits, and enforcement language allowing unions or other contractors to intervene as third-party whistleblowers when workers fear punishment or termination for reporting non-compliance or other violations.
“We also would like it to cover a wider range of sectors, including data processing and information technology,” Reid said. “It should apply to all workers, including independent contractors and temporary workers, on all construction projects, whether they’re funded by the government in full or in part.”
Too often, he said, temporary workers either are not being paid fair wages or they do not have access to the same types of benefits as journeymen and apprentices.
“A true prevailing wage that cuts across provincial and territorial borders would only help to build a stronger middle class in this country,” Reid said. “The government of Canada spends close to $25 billion every year to procure goods and services through contracts with a large number of suppliers. This fair wage policy could leverage these procurement contracts to help improve the lives of Canadians.”
The Canadian government recently solicited comments via an online forum about such a policy’s potential coverage, requirements and enforcement.
Public information-gathering roundtables also were held in Edmonton Ottawa, and Halifax.
Meanwhile, leaders in the First District are urging members to sign an online petition in support of the policy’s return (bit.ly/IBEW_FairWages) and to ask their representatives in Parliament to support a modern federal fair wages act.