Canada has long paid lip service to the notion of strong international labour standards, vigorously supporting the adoption of International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions. Supporting the adoption of a Convention as an International standard, however, is one thing. Ratifying the Convention and making it part of domestic Canadian law is quite another. Of the 189 Conventions adopted by the ILO, Canada has ratified a mere 34 of them. Worse still, only 32 of these 34 Conventions are actually in force as part of Canadian law.
There are 183 member states of the ILO. While not being a lone wolf, Canada has certainly distinguished itself as being one of a minority of member states which has refused to ratify all eight of the ILO’s core Conventions. These core Conventions have been recognized as being crucial to the protection of human rights. Despite this country’s purported respect for human rights, Canada has refused to ratify two of the eight Conventions, namely Convention No. 98 – the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining, 1949; and Convention No. 138 – Minimum Age, 1973.
Canada far exceeds any of the other member states in the number of complaints that workers’ organizations have brought to the ILO. Between 1982 and 2002 Canada had more than five times as many ILO complaints brought against than the member with the second highest number of complaints. In an overwhelming majority of those complaint cases the ILO has found that Canada had violated the principle of freedom of association, which is contained in the ILO’s most fundamental Convention – Convention 87, Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize.
Though Convention 87 is one of the small number of Conventions Canada has actually ratified, this country often violates the Convention via restrictive labour laws. The ILO has noted that under Convention 87:
…all workers without distinction whatsoever (with the sole possible exception of the armed forces and the police) shall have the right to organize under the Convention. Therefore, any provincial legislation that would deny or limit the full application of the Convention in relation to the freedom of association…should be amended.
In its report, the ILO noted twenty instances where governments in Canada have not only passed restrictive labour laws that unjustly limited workers’ fundamental rights under the Convention, but have also refused to amend these labour laws once found to contravene the Convention.
Sadly, Canada has shown a consistent, almost pathological, lack of support for International Labour Conventions in anything but name. Canada has been more than willing to support the adoption of Conventions as international standards but has been equally unwilling either to ratify these Conventions or abide by the Conventions once ratified.
Canadian workers have been left without the security these Conventions are meant to provide. With governments on the provincial and federal levels that would actively seek to circumvent protections for workers, one can’t help but wonder what the point of ratifying a Convention is if it will just be ignored anyway.
This is a fundamental problem which must be addressed in a proactive manner. People must be reminded of our international labour commitments. We must, at the very least, be able to expect our governments to honour the commitments it has made. With the litany of challenges facing organized labour, the task of facing an increasingly vociferous anti-union chorus is made ever more daunting by actions of our governments which would seek to undermine union security and the right to collective bargaining.
The enormity of this problem is matched only by its absurdity. The blatant disregard for international labour commitments enables many of the other challenges facing organized labour today. From right-to-work legislation to legislation that would limit the right to strike to the many challenges presented by globalization it’s sometimes easy to feel that there isn’t a friendly face left. The good news is that, in recent times, Canadian Courts have been uncharacteristically friendly toward organized labour.
The Courts have shown more respect for international labour commitments than the government that entered into those commitments. Between the respect being shown by the Courts and the solidarity of the unions, there is hope that organized labour will weather the undignified assaults on labour rights perpetrated by our governments. It is widely recognized that the middle class is crucial to a healthy economy and a healthy country. Unions are a pivotal part of the middle class. In eschewing the international rights of domestic workers, Canada is like the dog that mistakes its tail for an enemy – its only harming itself.