• By: Dan Donovan

How Much Is Enough?

At a time when Canadian banks are raking in astronomical profits from a combination of high service fees, low interest rates and a monopolized banking system that keeps out foreign competition, many Canadians are starting to wonder if there is any fairness left in the system for the average worker.

Relatives weep at the site of a burnt garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan were workers where locked in. An estimated 295 died. September 2012.
Relatives weep at the site of a burnt garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan were workers where locked in. An estimated 295 died. September 2012.

As executives from Canada’s big banks pay themselves millions and literally laugh themselves all the way to the bank, they continue to pay their workers lower wages and constantly seek ways to cut corners in order to pay their employees even less money. Last spring, 50 information technology system support employees at the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) were advised they were losing their jobs, but told they had to first train the foreign workers who were brought in to replace them! An RBC official stated at the time that the work was being outsourced for cost savings and efficiency. There followed an immediate and visceral backlash across the country as Canadians took to the Internet to express their outrage at what many called unfair hiring practices. If IT workers could be offshored, so could any professionals.

(Then) Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley issued a statement announcing: “We have recently learned of allegations that RBC could be replacing Canadian workers by contracting with iGate (a firm in India supplying foreign workers for RBC), which is filling some of the roles with temporary foreign workers. If true, this situation is unacceptable.”

For its part, the Royal Bank of Canada was left scrambling to explain its hiring practices to customers and soon backtracked big time, advising that all employees affected would be found other jobs within the bank and they would change their program since “it recognized the impact such an arrangement had on its employees.” In today’s workplace, competition for jobs comes from the global market. Whether you are an employer or employee, you have rights protected by Canada’s labour laws. In most cases, employees are more at risk and the loss of a job is extremely difficult.

In government, there are often formulas for severances. In business, it is different. How do you know whether the severance package offered to you is fair? How do you determine whether you have a wrongful dismissal claim? How do you know whether you are entitled to a bonus or stock options or if your employment contract is enforceable? How do you determine if you should negotiate with your employer yourself, have the assistance of an employment lawyer, or commence a wrongful dismissal suit? In most cases, employers will try to arrange a graceful exit. Then there are the cases of constructive dismissal. where people are forced out of their jobs unfairly. Common problems in the workforce include employees being dismissed while on disability leave; pregnant women pressured not to take all their maternity leave; lateral transfers in an organization that can stop your career (and monetary rise) in its tracks; and health-related labour issues (including mental health).

A second and more challenging area for many Canadian employers is called process and production methodology and standards. In Canada, there are strict labour standards in the workforce. However, many Canadian companies operate abroad under very different rules. What responsibilities do Canadian companies operating abroad have towards foreign workers who make their products?

When an eight-storey factory collapsed in Bangladesh in April, killing over 1,000 workers, it was learned that many Canadian companies (including Joe Fresh and Loblaws) had used the factory with its cheap labour and lax building standards to make their products. It was later learned that over 30 international apparel brands were having garments made at the doomed factory building. Ever wonder why that shirt from Joe Fresh cost only $7? It’s easy if the person making it is being paid 18 cents an hour. Many Canadian companies have taken steps to improve their standards, but many have not. To their credit, Joe Fresh and Loblaws say that have taken steps to improve labour and building standards since the collapse. We’ll see.

Over the next several issues, we will look at the organizations and players who are responsible for labour standards in Canada and abroad. Included will be in-depth interviews with federal and provincial labour ministers, labour academics, business executives and leading labour and employment lawyers.

To kick off the series, Gary Corbett of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada weighs in on changes by the federal government that could have adverse impacts on an employee’s sick leave or disability claims.