So what are the hot topics around labour relations right now?
One of the things that’s going to make employers reel is family status. This is a huge issue. There are a number of cases winding their way through the courts on the issue of family status discrimination. It means that if there is a substantial interference, an employee can now request accommodation for childcare obligations.
You’re talking about the federal ruling against Canada Border Services Agency, right?
Yes – the idea of opening up the labour code so that some people can work longer hours or introduce some flexibility that will suit their family obligations. If you consider that 43 per cent of marriages don’t reach the 50th wedding anniversary, there are a heck of a lot of children being tended to by single parents, plus people like myself, who will also be tending elderly parents. I’m waiting to see a legal test based on needing to take frail parents to see medical specialists during work hours. Or single parents who say, “Gosh, I have a disabled child or a mentally ill teenager at home.” It’s going to cause employers to have to be sensitive to variations in family status situations, as they are about disability. It’s a completely new way of looking at work.
What other labour issues should businesses be paying attention to?
Anti-bullying and psychological harassment legislation. We’re asking for more decent workplaces. It’s very difficult to figure out — one person’s bullying is another person’s sensitivity. But there are some horrendous cases. So I would be watching for the rollout of that legislation.
How do you legislate a more decent workplace?
Well, we’ve been trying to do it for 100 years. It’s never going to be perfect, because where there are people involved, there are going to be problems. The real perplexing problem is that for non-union employees, it creates huge hardship. Most complaints – between 92 and 96 per cent – that go to employment standards hotlines are from former employees. That’s a problem, when people have to lose their jobs in order to make a legitimate complaint. It’s not just a management issue. Every citizen should be held to account for creating a psychologically satisfying workplace.
What’s your advice for employers?
Be respectful of employees’ need to harmonize their lives into their employment. People under, say, 40 or 50 have more seamlessly integrated their private lives and their work lives. They’re more likely to answer a private e-mail and then a work e-mail. They bounce back and forth — whereas when our labour codes were written, there was a boundary between the hours of work and private life. And that boundary is breaking down — I’d describe it as almost a braid. Technology is enabling this seamlessness. Are you going to discipline someone for taking private phone calls when they work an extra two hours at night? Today, as long as you’re awake, you’re simultaneously working and running a private life. If I was going to write a labour code, I don’t even know how I would capture that. Maybe I would capture it through productivity measures, rather than hours.
That’s the ideal, right? As long as I get my stuff done, it shouldn’t matter how many hours I work.
It shouldn’t matter how many hours you work, where you work, how you work. I’m seeing more of that, but I’m also seeing a real tension between the old model of employment and this boundaryless world.
So will the labour code ever catch up?
I don’t think rules and regulations ever anticipate or catch up with modern developments. The law creates a general framework, and I think that we should be writing laws for the normal, not for the pathological. You can’t write laws that encompass every possible situation – there were only 10 commandments, right? You set up basic principles and then you deal with the abnormal separately. But what I would like to see is some opening up of the rigidities of labour codes that allow modern employees and modern employers to reach consensual deals that are good for both of them. If an employee says, “I want to work 12 hours a day when I don’t have custody of my kid – provided I’m not violating health and safety, and provided I’m not creating a risk to my fellow employees, and I can do it productively – and I want to work less when I have to pick up my kid from school at 3:30,” and if the employer can accommodate that, why should the labour code stop it?
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