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Harper Doesn't Care About the Average Canadian Worker

10/21/2014 05:53 EDT | Updated 12/21/2014 05:59 EST

It has been widely reported over the last few months that the Harper Conservatives want to attack the working conditions of public service workers by drastically weakening their sick leave provisions.

In true Conservative "divide and conquer" fashion, they hope that this will pit unionized public service workers against the larger group of non-unionized workers in the private sector, many of whom do not have paid sick leave provisions in their contracts. Indeed, the Conservatives, led by Treasury Board president Tony Clement, are making every effort to foment animosity between these sets of workers --mostly with false claims relating to cost and absenteeism rates -- rather than striving to improve working conditions for all Canadians and prioritizing public health.

It's not surprising that many workers in the private sector have no paid sick days. The private sector has a much lower unionization rate than the public sector, meaning that workers bargain individually and therefore have far less power to negotiate fair working conditions for themselves. The private sector is also heavily driven by the endless corporate drive for profit, which usually means that workers get squeezed, even when companies are already extremely profitable. Consider, for example, Caterpillar's demand in 2011 that its workers in London, Ontario, accept that their wages be cut in half even as the company generated nearly $5 billion in profit that year. Or take the Royal Bank of Canada, which switched its workers from a robust defined-benefit pension plan to a far riskier defined-contribution pension plan in 2012, while reporting a record profit of $7.5 billion that year. Or even more recently, with the backdrop of the 2013 Lac Mégantic tragedy, reports that Canada's major railway companies are still resisting proposed regulations to combat fatigue amongst their train operators due to cost.

Of course, things don't have to be this way. Governments can play a critical role in ensuring that all workers, regardless of whether they find themselves in the public or private sectors, and regardless of whether they are unionized or not, are treated with a minimum level of fairness. But when it comes to paid sick days, it's quite astounding that the Canada Labour Code and other provincial labour codes do not provision a minimum amount of paid sick days for workers; the only protection around illness provided to workers is a prohibition against demotion and dismissal.

If the Conservatives were truly concerned about the average Canadian worker, though, they would be focused on amending the Canada Labour Code to include a base amount of paid sick days for everyone employed in federally regulated industries. This would immediately bring the bar up for hundreds of thousands of workers and show leadership that the provinces could be encouraged to follow.

In addition to the common sense notion that one should not work but, rather, rest when feeling sick, the public health and economic arguments for such provisions are also compelling and, in fact, very much compatible with the Conservatives' rhetorical obsession with the economy. Ensuring that workers can stay home with paid sick days when they are ill is one of the best ways to minimize the spread of contagious diseases -- whether the cold or something more serious, such as the 2003 SARS outbreak. But when workers don't have access to paid sick leave, they more often than not show up to work to avoid losing pay and end up spreading diseases to coworkers, which reduces overall productivity and acts as a drag on the economy.

The research on this is very clear. For instance, the World Health Organization's (WHO) 2010 World Health Report Background Paper examined the issue of paid sick leave and found that: "In 2009, when the economic crisis and the H1N1 pandemic occurred simultaneously, an alarming number of employees without the possibility of taking paid sick leave attended work while being sick. This allowed H1N1 to spread into the workplace causing infections of some 7 million co-workers in the USA alone."

Furthermore, the WHO researchers noted that: "The economic costs of working while sick go far beyond increased health care costs due to treating a significantly higher number of people showing more severe signs of ill health. They also involve costs due to lower productivity and subsequent impacts on economic growth and development..."

Yet for all their talk about the economy, the Conservatives remain focused on attacking the negotiated sick leave provisions of federal public service workers, rather than introducing paid sick leave for all. Contrast this intransigence, however, with the situation in the US--which generally has weaker protections for workers than Canada--where many jurisdictions are moving towards universal paid sick leave.

As early as 2007, for example, the city of San Francisco has required that all employers in the city provide workers with as many as eight paid sick days for a year's worth of full time work, and in 2012, Connecticut became the first state to pass a paid sick leave law, which has been well received. In January of this year, moreover, New York City expanded an existing sick leave law to all businesses with five or more employees, which allows workers to use paid sick days not only for themselves but also to care for an ailing family member, including a grandparent or grandchild. And in September of this year, California passed a law to extend paid sick leave to workers across the state. This is particularly instructive, given that California's population and economic output are comparable to Canada's. Meanwhile, the New Jersey legislature is now examining its own paid sick leave bill as several cities in the state have already enacted their own paid sick days ordinances, and Massachusetts will hold a referendum on paid sick leave in November.

But for Canadians, nothing. Perhaps not surprising for a government that refuses to show leadership on any number of initiatives that can improve the lives of Canadians, whether it be retirement security, adequate employment insurance, a national childcare plan, or a national pharmacare and dental care plan. Ultimately, however, yet another example of the utter lack of vision remaining in the Conservative machinery following nine years in power, and yet another reason why Canadians will vote for change in 2015.

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