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BC Politics

Labour and Post-Secondary Students Hoped for More from BC Budget

As pressures mount, critics fear increases won’t be enough.

Brishti Basu 28 Feb 2024The Tyee

Brishti Basu reports on labour for The Tyee. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative. Follow her on X @brish_ti.

B.C. is failing to invest enough in training skilled workers, protecting employees and increasing access to jobs, says critics of this year’s budget.

Labour leaders welcomed the lack of cuts and new one-time measures to provide financial support to families and individuals.

“We look at a budget that is putting money in people’s pockets right now when times are really tough, and we’re really happy to see that,” said Sussanne Skidmore, the president of the BC Federation of Labour.

But Sharon Gregson, the spokesperson for the $10-a-day child-care campaign at the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, said she was disappointed that the program was not being expanded more rapidly despite its successes.

“In her speech the finance minister referenced 100,000 more women able to be in the workforce because they have access to affordable child care,” Gregson said. “So we were surprised that there wasn’t provincial investment into expanding access.”

Gregson said she was also disappointed that the budget didn’t include a mandate or funding to provide before and after-school child care at all elementary schools in B.C., which she said is another way to help parents of young children out in the workplace.

Potential cuts to student aid

According to the Ministry of Jobs, Economic Development and Innovation budget plan, eight out of 10 job openings in the next decade will require a post-secondary education and “there continues to be a gap between the skills businesses need and the skills workers have” in B.C.

The budget has an increase of 23.9 per cent for post-secondary “educational institutions and organizations.”

But Michael Gauld, a representative of the BC Federation of Students, said that will largely go to cover wage increases and other cost pressures, rather than expanding programs and services.

The provincial budget for student services programs — which includes financial aid, scholarships, bursaries and loan forgiveness programs — is $2.2 million less than last year’s $73.6 million.

The amount allocated for labour market and skills training programs has also been reduced by $1.3 million to $30.1 million.

In a statement in response to The Tyee, a post-secondary Education Ministry spokesperson said these changes reflect “minor adjustments” and “no program delivery impacts are anticipated.”

Gauld says the students’ federation has also asked the ministry how the funding changes will affect schools for lost revenue from federal and provincial cuts to the number of international students, whose high tuition fees provided key funding for colleges and universities.

Government should “expect that there will be institutions that are losing lots of revenue, and they’ll have to make up for that,” Gauld said.

Protecting workers from abuse

B.C.’s Employment Standards Branch, charged with protecting workers from employer abuse, has faced rising complaints and increasing backlogs and delays in resolving them.

Critics say the budget increase is not enough to keep up.

The B.C. Labour Ministry budget shows an increase of $3.5 million for the Employment Standards Branch this year, up 20 per cent. It was announced last year as part of a three-year plan to address a rising backlog of workers’ complaints.

This funding has already been used to hire up to 40 more full-time equivalent positions, a Labour Ministry spokesperson told The Tyee in a statement, bringing the total number of branch employees to about 182.

Last year, the branch received 8,771 complaints — almost double the number in 2017 — as it became easier for workers to submit complaints.

As of last week, the Employment Standards Branch had a backlog of 4,620 complaints.

Pamela Charron, executive director of Worker Solidarity Network, said delays mean employers are “stealing” workers’ wages by denying overtime or holiday pay and other abuses.

“At a time of a cost-of-living crisis, workers can’t afford to wait over a year to recover hard-earned wages,” Charon said. “It puts them in a position of deciding on whether they should pay rent or if they should put food on the table.”

According to Charron, the ESB helped recover about $8 million of unpaid wages last year. The Labour Ministry said the branch resolved 8,081 complaints in 2023.

In some cases, Charron said, workers are waiting over a year to talk to an Employment Standards Branch investigator to start the process of recovering wages. It can sometimes take up to three years to finally get the money they are owed, she said.

The government’s targets are ambitious. While last year, only 36 per cent of Employment Standards Branch complaints were resolved within the branch’s target of 180 days, the Labour Ministry predicts that it will be able to resolve 80 per cent within that time frame in 2024.

Temporary foreign workers and self-employed driving job growth

In Budget 2024, the provincial government touted an employment increase of 1.6 per cent, with most new jobs seen in the public sector and among people who are self-employed. The labour force also expanded due to more temporary foreign workers.

According to the Labour Ministry, in 2023 18,000 employers applied to the Employment Standards Branch to hire temporary foreign workers — six times higher than the 2,955 applications it received just two years prior.

Industry stakeholders have said there is growing demand for foreign labour, particularly in sectors like hospitality, construction and agriculture where companies are struggling to hire and retain staff.

At the same time, the number of people who were self-employed accounted for the second highest number of new jobs in B.C. last year, after public sector employees, and the province is preparing new legislation to improve labour conditions for gig workers.

“It’s in the works and it can’t come soon enough,” said Charron, referring to the NDP’s Bill 48 which proposes that app-based workers — those who deliver food or drive Ubers — be protected under the Employment Standards Act.

The regulations are expected to be finalized this spring, “with some time allowed for companies to implement these important changes,” the Labour Ministry spokesperson told The Tyee.

Charron said the Employment Standards Coalition has been seeking a $14-million increase to ESB funding.

“As we continue to include better protections hopefully in the future, like the gig worker protection, will the branch have the adequate resources to be able to sustain the increase in complaints?” Charron asked.  [Tyee]

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