Reforms to ESC should focus on workers

Matthew Dyck

Recent changes to the Manitoba Employment Standards Code (ESC) could potentially have a negative effect on workers in the province.

A news release found on the provincial government’s website outlines the various alterations, which have been in effect since Jan 1.

Among other changes, employees can now “voluntarily enter into an individual flex-time agreement with their employer’s approval.”

Such an agreement allows employees to rearrange their work weeks - provided that they work over 35 hours per week - so that they can work longer shifts but fewer days.

With a flex-time agreement in place, employees can work up to 10 hours per day without being paid overtime, but cannot exceed 40 hours per standard week.

“These changes will help Manitoba’s food services sector to better plan and schedule work times to meet customer needs while at the same time giving our workforce opportunities to spend more time with their families,” says Scott Jocelyn, the executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant & Foodservices Association.

While at first glance the introduction of flex-time agreements appears fairly benign, the ground-level implications of the new rules pose a number of concerns.

Despite numerous safeguards written into the amended sections of the ESC, which are intended to prevent employers from coercing or forcing employees into entering into flex-time agreements, poorly-informed or uncritical workers could still potentially be taken advantage of by employers looking to save a few bucks on payroll.

The ideal implementation of the new ESC changes is relatively harmless; it’s their real implementation, largely in the food service industry - an industry not without its fair share of employer corner-cutting tales - that might prove less satisfactory.

Additionally, the introduction of flex-time agreements as defined by the amended ESC seems to favour employers over workers to a certain extent.

Apart from more bureaucratically managed establishments, it was not uncommon for restaurants to grant employees work days of longer than eight hours, overtime included, on a somewhat standard basis prior to the recent rule changes.

It’s quite likely that most food service workers who could stand to make use of flex-time agreements have been working 10 hour days regularly already - albeit with overtime included.

For this reason, I’ll wager a guess that the apron-wearing, minimum-wage-earning half of the employer-employee spectrum will probably benefit quite marginally, if at all, from the aforementioned changes.

Alternately, employers seeking to save money can now potentially dodge paying overtime to workers who regularly choose to work longer than eight hours a day by opting to enforce workplace regulations more strictly.

Are these changes really so detrimental? Certainly not.

However, they illustrate problematic aspects of the ongoing tug-of-war between employer and employee, specifically in the context of a food service industry in which the latter party generally works for as little pay as possible.

Reforms to the ESC need to focus more directly upon improving conditions for workers, rather than affecting the above relationship in ambiguous ways.

Hopefully, the next round of changes will fight at least a little bit harder for the little guy.

He could really use it - and he really appreciates a polite tip for his hard work.

Carson Hammond is a second-year English major at the University of Winnipeg and a beat reporter at The Uniter.

Published in Volume 66, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 8, 2012)

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