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Labour Day Has Passed - But Your Employee Rights Continue 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.

First Monday in September
a Reminder of Workers' Struggles

September 1, 2008 fell on a Monday, giving us all a much appreciated long weekend. We basked in the sun, consumed copious amounts of food and drink, and if you're like most Canadians, gave nary a thought to what this holiday actually represents. Let's harken back then for a moment to 1872, which witnessed the first Labour Day parade ever, right here in Toronto -- hardly a worker's paradise in those days. Fact is it was still a crime to be a member of a union, under the law of criminal conspiracy. That initial parade called for the release of 24 imprisoned leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union, who were on strike to secure the nine-hour working day! (Funny how quaint a notion that seems nowadays, eh?)

Thankfully, workplace laws and employee rights have evolved radically since those Draconian days. Today legislation covers all areas of the employment realm. So what are some of the key developments that we should be aware of?

Where To Read About Your Employee Rights The federal Employment Standards Act (ESA) is a key piece of legislation to keep your eyes on. It outlines the rights and responsibilities of employees and employers on a national basis. The ESA covers minimum standards in such areas as hours of work, wages, vacation, termination and severance, pregnancy and parental leave, plus other key issues. The influence of this act continues to grow. For instance, it's compulsory to place an ESA poster in plain sight of employees for workplaces covered by this legislation. And no employee can be legally forced to give up the minimum rights stipulated in the statue, regardless of what contract they might sign with their employer.

There are exceptions to coverage, such as managers and supervisory staff. Details are spelled out in each particular province's Act. There is, however, a general misconception that salaried employees, regardless of their position, are automatically excluded from the ESA. This is untrue. For example, an Executive Assistant earning $45,000 a year would still be entitled to overtime after working 44 hour weeks consistently.

How would someone in that situation seek redress? They could start by making a claim to their provincial Employment Standards branch. Usually you don't require a lawyer there and turnaround times are relatively quick. However this route allows for maximum monetary awards in the range of $10,000 or so, hence if you expect your claim to be higher you may need to retain a good employment lawyer and take the case to court. There are, of course, other provincial statutes governing the workplace, such as the Occupational Health and Safety Act; Workplace Safety and Insurance Act; Labour Relations Act; and Pay Equity Act. These are in addition to such federal standards as the Human Rights Act and Canada Labour Code.

Employment Law Resources Online Sound like a potential minefield of rules and regulations to be aware of? The good news is you don't have to worry about your statutory rights since they're guaranteed. But a couple of employment lawyers I know have indicated that, while it's important to be aware of some of the basic provisions, you probably shouldn't try to deal with complex issues on your own. Reading the statutes is fine. Then again a little bit of legal knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially when dealing with career decisions. Such is the case with the Employment Standards Act, a typical document that outlines your fundamental entitlements only. Therefore even a full reading will only give you a partial picture, one that doesn't cover the many nuances included in common law (which has been decided by the courts).

That being the case, where can the average employee turn for information regarding their workplace rights?

Going online is a great beginning. Here are some of the better Canadian sites with information about employment law and entitlements:
  • Employment Law Information. A collection of highlights covering various areas of legislation, such as wrongful dismissal, hiring and human rights, employee liability, discrimination, harassment and more from law firm Grosman, Grosman and Gale LLP.
  • Federal Labour Legislation. From Human Resources Development Canada. Includes the Canada Labour Code, Employment Equity Act, and Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act.
  • Free Employment Law Information. From LegalLine.ca, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide Ontario residents with free, easy to understand legal information.
  • Directory Of Labour Organizations. These are groups who represent organized labour in the country. You can also find links to resources geared to employee advocacy.
Still Labouring To Increase Employee Rights Beyond knowing where to find the right information and get advice, it's interesting to note some of the recent trends in employment law. One important shift is in the efforts of our judicial system to adjust the inherent power imbalance between employer and employee. Since the employer has historically held greater influence, our courts are trying to interpret statutes in favour of employees. An example of this is the Wallace vs. United Grain Growers case, which established that employers have an obligation to terminate fairly and in good faith. In other words, you can't be fired on some drummed up pretext just so your employer can avoid the statutory minimums in terms of severance and notice.

All in all, it seems we're making progress with employee entitlements. There is much still to do, but we've come a very long way since our labour leaders were kept in jail for demanding basic rights. Something to keep in mind when the next 'first week in September' comes our way.

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