When you are hired for a job, you are entering into a contractual relationship. You are offering your time and your skills in exchange for money. Whether you sign a contract or not, the relationship you have with your employer is a legal one.

Interestingly, employment law has its roots in the Old English master-servant relationship. The employer-employee relationship only began to be treated as a contract between equals during the industrial revolution.

Traditionally conservative theories view the employer-employee relationship as one between equals.  A worker is free to accept a job or not, and is able to negotiate for things like wages and working conditions on their own. If an employer does not provide good working conditions, workers will go work somewhere else. Since workers are free to leave to work elsewhere, they can negotiate with their employer for increased wages and for better working hours and conditions (like a set schedule or a guaranteed day off). This idea of the employer-employee relationship ignores the power imbalance that exists between workers and their bosses.

While it is true that workers are legally free to quit their jobs, it is not easy for workers to walk off the job and find work somewhere else. Workers are tied to their employer because they need to work in order to survive–we need money to feed ourselves and to pay our rent. Quitting a job to find another one is very risky for workers; i, and without a job, many people cannot survive. Because of this, workers cannot easily move from one job to another.

Working in retail, I never felt completely comfortable going to my boss and negotiating for a day off or for a raise. I was afraid that my boss would not like me anymore and I didn’t want to lose my job. I had rent and bills to pay.  I was afraid to quit my job because there was no guarantee that I would get another – I dropped resumes off at over 10 different businesses before landing a job.

Imagine a retail worker in Victoria: say they make $11 per hour, and are given 35 hours per week;ay they pick up a couple of shifts at another workplace, and make the same $11 per hour, 8-14 hours per week. Per month, they work over 40 hours per week and make around $1700 after taxes and deductions. They pay per month:

  • $700 in rent and utilities
  • $100 for a bus pass.
  • $500 for food
  • $100 for loan payments
  • $50 to clothe themselves.

That leaves them with $250 per month leftover, if they do not need to buy anything else in that month. If they are unhappy with their job, they are not practically able to quit and find another job with only $250 in the bank. Now say this worker is providing for a child. This makes it even more impossible for this worker to take the risk of quitting and finding other work. The idea that workers, especially typically low-wage retail workers, are free to move between employers, is just not a reality in many cases.

Many employers view their workers in terms of how much they cost the business.Capitalism requires that businesses be primarily concerned with making the greatest profit possible. The legal purpose of a corporation, which is to make profit, confirms this. Businesses hire workers because they need their labour in order  to make a profit. They must use some of the money they make to pay the workers. Since businesses want to maximize profit, they will often pay their workers as little as they can get away with, and push the most amount of work that they can on each worker to make the most out of their labour. Workers, not actually free to move to another employer, have difficulty negotiating with their employers for more money or better working conditions.

Provincial governments have recognized to some extent that the employer-employee relationship is not completely equal. This is why we, and other provinces, have Employment Standards Acts. These pieces of legislation  differ depending on which province you work in. The Employment Standards Act sets out the basic working conditions that employers must provide. It sets out things like overtime hours and pay; minimum wage; how much notice must be given by an employer if they want to fire a worker; and more. The provincial government realized that these were basic conditions that needed to be provided to workers, no matter what (although, many people are increasingly falling through the cracks in the legislation, such as migrant and temporary foreign workers in Canada) . After all, workers are not just business costs. They are people, who need to pay for housing, food and clothing. They are people who want to have time off work and the ability to enjoy their lives.

Just because legislation exists to provide some rights to workers, however, does not mean that workers rights are protected as strongly as they should be. BC’s Employment Standards Act does not offer very much protection to workers. In fact, it is one of the worst Employment Standards Acts in Canada.

It is important that workers continue to push for better working conditions. The Employment Standards Act provides only a very basic level of workers’ rights. Workers are human beings; we deserve fair living standards. We deserve to have time off each week to enjoy our life. We deserve to have some money leftover at the end of the month to put towards things we enjoy as humans: books, movies, concerts, art supplies, hiking, musical instruments, knitting, gardening, organizing in our community, savings for travel, whatever it is we are interested in. And we deserve to be compensated for our work in a way that provides enough money and enough time so that we can enjoy our lives.

Some workers, deciding that the Employment Standards Act does not provide enough protection, will form unions, so that they can balance the employer-employee relationship through collective bargaining, and negotiate for better working conditions together. Other workers will talk to their Member of Parliament (MP) or their Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), and explain what protections they need. Other workers will protest or engage in other forms of direct action. All of these methods are worthwhile. The Retail Action Network is here to provide support with whatever approach you want to take to organize and fight for your rights!