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Employee Gains and Losses Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Workopolis.com Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit www.CareerActivist.com.

As with our Olympic team last summer, Canadian employees scored some fabulous wins in 2004 -- and suffered a few crushing losses. On the one hand, we saw added protections, labour rights and laws. On the other, wage and job growth barely limped to the finish line.

The good news starts with protections. Our government stepped in at last to start helping our country's whistleblowers. Bill C-13 came into force on September 15. Toronto Star reporter Tyler Hamilton noted 'employers who try to muzzle employees with the threat of disciplinary action, such as job loss or demotion, could face up to five years in prison if their goal is to cover up fraud or corruption.'

Hurray for the forces of ethicality! Too bad this wasn't in time for the three Health Canada scientists ejected from the match last August: Shiv Chopra, Margaret Haydon and Gerard Lambert. This trio had been publicly raising alarms about the efficacy of certain drugs -- and the lack thereof, to be precise. Like the type to be used on chickens and cows that could lead to antibiotic resistance in people.

That's one point for the truth, and one for those who'd suppress it. Remarked New Democrat MPP and justice critic Peter Kormos. "You can have whistleblower protection, but that person is still engaging in a career-limiting move."

I tend to agree with Kormos' pronouncement. However a limiting move can sometimes be a good thing (as Martha might say from her well-accoutered prison cell). Take the matter of work hours. Back in the days when Ontario's Conservatives were like Visigoths on the corporate payroll, they enabled broad legislation for a 60 hour workweek.

But just last month that law was repealed. The Employment Standards Act Bill got rid of the 60-hour extension, put in measures to increase awareness of workplace rights and responsibilities, and includes rigorous enforcement of employment standards law. As of March 1 2005, the maximum workweek in unionized environments will be back to 48 hours.

Another victory for employees? More inspections of Ontario companies for compliance with Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) and Ontario Ministry of Labour are targeting employers with substandard compliance, significant accident costs and poor health and safety records.

Speaking of health, last April the Ontario government tabled proposed legislation that would provide up to eight weeks of job-protected, unpaid time off work for employees who need to care for gravely ill family members who have a significant risk of dying within 26 weeks. Employees may also be eligible for federal Employment Insurance (EI) compassionate care benefits during this period. More on this later this year.

Yet another reason for high-fives among employees: it should be easier now to access your personal information stored by your employer. Under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), an employee's info can only be used for the purpose it was collected. You also have the right to see what's there and challenge its accuracy -- particularly if you work in the federally regulated private sector.

Not that all such successes come proviso-free. Take the shorter work week, for instance. Regulations will shortly allow exemptions and longer hours for industries such as mining, where companies fly workers to remote areas for weeks at a time. A few of those exemptions already exist.

Then there's the labour deal imposed on tar sands workers. Due mainly to rising wages in the oil patch, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein's cabinet gave Calgary-based Canadian Natural the right to negotiate its own deal with unions to control construction costs at a project north of Fort McMurry. The company is allowed to use both non-union and union crews paid at the same wage. Canadian Natural is already denying rumours it's begun recruiting foreign workers as a means of reducing salaries.

Beyond the red hot oil sector, salaries were held in check by market forces. Too many people chasing too few jobs. Here's the upshot for 2004: The average weekly earnings of payroll employees was only 1.9% higher than in 2003. Consider that inflation amounts to 1.6% for the same period, and the game's pretty much a draw.

One headline I couldn't help chuckling at involved wage restraints on IBM's top 300 executives. Unless they can actually increase the firm's share price by 10%, it's adios to their stock options. Can you imagine their dismay at being held accountable for performance?

Their angst likely doesn't compare to the 8 million or so U.S. workers who lost the right to overtime. Or the thousands upon thousands of Canadians whose jobs in the manufacturing sector disappeared like so many of our gold medal hopes.

The gains and losses of 2004, in my opinion, foreshadow a grudge match this coming year. Many employers, faced with a surplus of labour in most fields, will continue pushing for cost containment instead of wage increases. Many employees, already saddled with growing debt loads and the lowest savings rate since the Depression (zero, for the record), will scramble to keep their jobs and simply stay in the race.

All told, we are likely to see more legislation protecting worker's rights. As well as pressure to give up these hard earned privileges should the economy fail to pick up. It may be a lot like Greece was in July: fiercely competitive, brimming with overheated rhetoric, ultimately giving way to victors and the vanquished. I'll be sure to keep you posted on who's winning as the year progresses.

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