February 1, 2023, marks one year since the launch of the Workers’ Action Network of Newfoundland and Labrador. While we dedicate a significant amount of our time to educating workers in low-wage and unstable jobs about their workplace rights, our overarching mandate is to build the collective voice of these workers across the province in the ongoing fight for decent work conditions.
Who is a low-wage worker?
According to the Newfoundland and Labrador Statistics Agency, in 2022, 68,100 workers in the province earned less than $20 an hour (and this figure excludes those deemed to be ‘self-employed’). That means at least one-third of our workforce are low-wage workers – one in three workers!
Most of these workers struggle to make ends meet, if not support families, with these low-paying jobs. Two-thirds of low-wage workers are employed in sectors notorious for low wages and benefits: wholesale and retail, accommodations and food services, and health care and social assistance. The vast majority of these jobs are permanent and full-time positions. Two-thirds of those who work low wage jobs are twenty-five years of age and older, and just under half have a post-secondary certificate, diploma, or university degree. 60 percent of low-wage workers are women, contributing to one of the highest gender wage gaps in the country.
Most low-wage workers in this province are not unionized, they depend on the Labour Standards Act for their workplace rights. Workers deemed ‘self-employed’ have no workplace protections under this legislation. While we promote unionization as the most effective way to win decent work conditions, we recognize the urgent need to strengthen workers’ rights in the Labour Standards Act for those not party to a collective agreement.
Under current labour standards legislation, workers are entitled to a measly seven days of sick/family responsibility leave a year. This unpaid leave is another blow to low-wage workers struggling to make ends meet. For many workers with families or health problems a scant seven unpaid days of leave is just not enough. Exceeding these seven days constitutes broken service, which delays or nullifies access to other benefits, such as vacation time or pay-in-lieu of notice when employment is terminated. Anything less than ten employer-paid sick days is an injustice to workers and detrimental to public health.
There are no provisions for fair scheduling practices. Many workers get their shift schedules with less than a week’s notice (39 percent according to our 2022 General Worker Survey), and the days, hours, and the number of hours vary significantly from week to week. Employers should provide work schedules with two weeks’ notice. Schedules should be consistent and predictable, and staff input into those schedules.
The Labour Standards Act doesn’t even protect a worker’s right to be paid appropriately. The minimum wage remains far below what workers need to get by, and employers aren’t even required to adequately compensate workers when they work more than forty hours a week. All they have to pay is the ‘minimum overtime wage,’ which is one-and-a-half times the minimum wage rather than one-and-a-half times their regular pay rate as required in most provinces. And while wage theft is a common experience for workers, there are zero punitive consequences for employers who illegally withhold wages from their workers. At best, and only if the worker keeps good records to make their case to the Labour Standards Division, the employer will be ordered to pay the amount owed to the worker.
Modern workplace protections
These issues need to be addressed in labour standards legislation appropriate for today’s workplace environment.
Newfoundland and Labrador is not known for governments that put the needs of workers first, which is why almost 70,000 workers earn less $20 an hour. In his mandate letter, Bernard Davis, our current Minister Responsible for Labour, was tasked with convening “a Labour Summit, bringing together our province’s labour organizations to discuss issues of concern.” Almost two years into his mandate, this has yet to happen. That says a lot about where workers stand in the eyes of this government.
It is long past time for the provincial government to prioritize the needs of the working class with the same intentionality as they do the needs of business. And so the Workers’ Action Network of Newfoundland and Labrador continues to educate, agitate, and organize the low-wage, marginalized, and otherwise vulnerable workers of this province to build the collective power to raise the floor of workplace standards and win decent working conditions for all!
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