When it comes to labour stan­dards, Canada’s liv­ing in a glass house

The Peterborough Examiner - - OPINION - Thomas Walkom Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based colum­nist cov­er­ing pol­i­tics. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @tomwalkom

Rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the rene­go­ti­ated North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment is de­layed be­cause Democrats in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives want it to con­tain tougher labour stan­dards. At least that is the story.

In fact, the Amer­i­cans — with the quiet back­ing of Canada’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment — want only Mex­ico to toughen its labour stan­dards. They are quite happy with the sta­tus quo in their own coun­tries.

They shouldn’t be. Work­ers in both Canada and the U.S. face bar­ri­ers in their ef­forts to make a de­cent liv­ing.

True, Mex­ico’s low labour stan­dards and wages pose a real prob­lem for other North Amer­i­can work­ers. Man­u­fac­tur­ers from Canada and the U.S. have moved their op­er­a­tions to Mex­ico to take ad­van­tage of its bar­gain-base­ment wage struc­ture.

But that was the whole point of NAFTA. It was de­signed, in large part, to re­duce wage growth in Canada and the U.S. It did so by putting highly paid work­ers in those coun­tries in di­rect com­pe­ti­tion with Mex­i­cans.

Mex­i­can au­towork­ers, for in­stance, make less than $4 an hour — a frac­tion of what their Cana­dian and Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts earn.

Still, it’s a bit rich for House Democrats to worry about this now. They had a chance to kill NAFTA at birth 26 years ago. So did Canada’s Lib­er­als. Nei­ther availed them­selves of the op­por­tu­nity.

What’s re­ally galling, how­ever, is the hypocrisy. Yes, Mex­i­can labour stan­dards are worse than those of its north­ern neigh­bours. But Canada and the U.S. are far from per­fect.

In var­i­ous U.S. states, so called rightto-work laws have made it near im­pos­si­ble to union­ize em­ploy­ees.

Canada is more sub­tle. With the no­table ex­cep­tion of On­tario’s ban on or­ga­niz­ing farm work­ers, Cana­dian prov­inces don’t usu­ally bother with bla­tant anti-union laws. In­stead, they achieve much the same end through com­plex reg­u­la­tions that sim­ply make union or­ga­ni­za­tion more dif­fi­cult.

Prov­inces like On­tario have de­lib­er­ately not kept their labour laws in sync with the re­quire­ments of the new econ­omy — one char­ac­ter­ized by fran­chis­ing, dig­i­tal em­ploy­ment and part-time work. More to the point, prov­inces like On­tario don’t en­force the stan­dards that do ex­ist. Cit­ing bud­get con­straints and an aver­sion to red tape, they cut back work­place in­spec­tions and re­spond in­ad­e­quately to real com­plaints.

As my col­league Sara Mo­jte­hedzadeh re­ported re­cently, On­tario work­ers can’t be as­sured of get­ting the wages they are owed even when the prov­ince’s labour min­istry rules in their favour.

None of this is meant to sug­gest that Mex­i­can wage rates and labour stan­dards are ad­e­quate. As Mex­i­can work­ers them­selves know, they are not.

And as long as Canada re­mains in NAFTA, it is in our in­ter­est to side with the U.S. House Democrats in their ef­forts to raise Mex­i­can labour stan­dards.

But be­fore Canada’s gov­ern­ment gets too self-right­eous, it might want to re­flect on the prob­lems with work, wages and labour stan­dards in this coun­try. We too have a long way to go.


Mex­cian labour stan­dards are low, but Canada and the U.S. have noth­ing to boast about, writes Thomas Walkom.

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