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Nova Scotian Workers Need Improved Standards

March 12, 2012

4-minute read

“Workers in Nova Scotia are worse off economically than they were a quarter century ago.  For the most part, this deterioration in wages happened at the same time that the economy of the province vigorously increased the wealth it generated.”  Now, Nova Scotia has the second-lowest average weekly earnings of all the provinces.

Despite economic growth, hard-working Nova Scotian families have not seen an improvement in their standard of living.  In the years between 1981 and 2006, “the provincial economy grew by 62%, average real weekly earnings actually fell by 4%. This means that after adjusting for inflation, workers in Nova Scotia were 4% poorer than they were 25 years ago. During those 25 years, productivity in Nova Scotia (measured in real GDP per worker hour) increased by 16%.”

Instead of working people making wage gains, capital has been able to take full advantage of the province's lax labour standards.  Businesses managed to increase the share of net domestic product allocated to profit from under 5% to more than 14% percent between 1991 and 2005.  In Nova Scotia the pie is not shrinking; certain people are taking bigger slices, leaving less for the rest of us.

CCPA-NS Research Associates Kyle Buott, Larry Hiaven, and Judy Haiven, recently released a report outlining the reasons for these trends and offering prescriptions for how the province can move to correct them.  The report, titled Labour Standards Reform in Nova Scotia: Reversing the War Against Workers, shows how labour standards in Nova Scotia have fallen behind other provinces.  They advise reforming the province’s Labour Standards Code, the legislation that covers the 68% of Nova Scotian workers who are not unionized.

One of the key standards examined by the report is hours worked.  Most other provinces require overtime pay for any hours worked past 40 or 44.  Nova Scotia, by contrast, does not mandate overtime pay until an employee has worked 48 hours.  That means that a Nova Scotian week can actually consist of six full work days with no extra compensation!  The study’s authors recommend that Nova Scotia move toward the Canadian standard and institute mandatory overtime pay after 40 hours of work per week.

What’s more, the province has no absolute maximum hours that an employer can force an employee to work.  The authors also recommend that this be changed, and employers not be allowed to force employees to work more than 48 hours per week.

Nova Scotians are also only mandated two weeks of annual vacation, significantly less than other provinces and countries.  Germany, for example, mandates six weeks of annual paid vacation, and boasts a highly productive economy.  The report’s authors recommend that Nova Scotians be given a minimum of three weeks paid vacation, rising to four weeks after working for ten years.

Nova Scotia is tied with Prince Edwards Island for having the least statutory holidays in Canada.  The authors recommend that the province move closer to the national norm by increasing the number of holidays from six to nine.  They also note that the criteria that must be met in order for an employee to be eligible for holiday pay is too inflexible.  Rather than requiring employees to have worked 15 of the 30 previous days, and the two days around the holiday, every employed Nova Scotian who works the day before a holiday should be entitled to the holiday as paying time-and-a-half or be able to refuse to work it

The authors also recommend the implementation of “equal pay for work of equal value” legislation.  Women continue to suffer from a gendered wage gap, making about 72 cents for every dollar earned by their male peers.  The authors note that Nova Scotia has applied the principle of equal pay for work of equal value in its public employment, and that, “The method for doing this, job evaluation, is long-established and practised by employers for the purpose of developing pay scales within their work force”

The authors also note that the province’s minimum wage, despite recent gains, still leaves a fulltime worker well below the Low Income Cutoff—about $4,000 less than what is needed for a parent and child.  When adjusted for inflation the minimum wage in Nova Scotia has still not met its mid-1970s high.  In fact, had it kept pace with inflation, minimum wage workers “would now be making more than $15 per hour.”

The province’s workers suffer from myriad other holes in labour standards legislation.  Nova Scotian workers are not protected from working unreasonable overtime.  They are afforded less break time and less leave for maternity, despite having a qualifying period and advanced notification period that are longer than most other provinces.  Nova Scotians are allowed significantly less leave time when they experience a death in their family.  They are not covered by mandatory severance pay.  The province’s workers are not protected by any whistleblower legislation.  Nova Scotia trails far behind other provinces in its labour standards.

What’s more, the province suffers from an acute inability to enforce the laws that do exist.  In the words of the study’s authors, “Several conditions conspire to make a mockery of labour standards provisions. The most important is the fact that enforcement is based on complaints by employees, more than on surveillance of employers by a government agency. Re-active enforcement is not sufficient. There must be a strong pro-active element to enforcement.”

Other factors contributing to employers’ abuse of their employees’ rights include: employee lack of understanding of their rights, employer intimidation, asymmetric power relationships between workers and managers, violations of standards costing less than compliance, insufficient inspectorate and inconsistent penalties.

To remedy these problems the authors make several recommendations.  The province needs to hire more inspectors and empower them with greater authority and the ability to target high-risk employers.  Nova Scotia should improve its employer audit system.  Also, the province needs to build a greater culture of worker rights, disseminating knowledge of labour standards throughout the workforce.  Nova Scotia should raise its fines for offences and apply them more consistently.  Improving labour standards enforcement means tangibly improving peoples’ lives.

Another way to improve living standards and ensure that working people are not unduly exploited is to promote unionization.  Fortunately for Nova Scotians, after years of decline, union density is now slowly increasing. Prince Edwards Island is the only other province where this is the case.  If Nova Scotian families are going to share in their province’s prosperity, they must be free to bargain collectively, on an equal footing with their employer.

In Nova Scotia growing prosperity is not translating into higher quality of life for hard-working families.  Instead, businesses are able to use the province’s lax labour standards, and its inability to properly enforce those that exist, to hold on to more and more of the economic pie.  This study, Labour Standards Reform in Nova Scotia: Reversing the War Against Workers, provides a prescription for how the province can ensure that its citizens are not unduly exploited and that all Nova Scotians share in the province’s growing prosperity.


Jason Edwards
Research Officer, CCPA-NS
Editor and Contributor,

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