Labour standards: Canada is lagging


Study shows other countries offer better vacation, maternity benefits

As they get set to relax on this Labour Day long weekend, working Canadians might think their living and working conditions are among the best on the planet. They would be surprised to find out just how far they really lag behind workers in other parts of the world.

Groundbreaking research by the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy shows policies in many Canadian provinces sometimes fall far short of those in dozens of other nations when it comes to support for such basic things as maternity leave, annual paid vacations, sick leave and work breaks for breastfeeding babies.

This broad international survey, called the Work Equity Canada (WECan) Index, is the first research of its type that measures Canadian laws and practices against those of other countries. Conducted by Martine Chaussard, Megan Gerecke and Jody Heymann of the Institute, it examines how 180 different nations treat their workers.

Canadians are likely to be surprised by some of the key findings:

  • At least 89 other countries guarantee workers three weeks or more of paid leave a year, while most workers in Canada with a year’s tenure are guaranteed only two. And in Ontario, P.E.I. and the Yukon, even those workers with long service are guaranteed only two weeks of vacation.
  • At least 156 countries provide leave for sick workers. Of these at least 81 guarantee full wage replacement. Canada guarantees sick workers just over half as much – only 55 per cent of their insurable income. Moreover most provinces and territories do not guarantee job protection during leaves of longer than 12 days.
  • As for maternity leave, 106 countries officially provide mothers with complete wage replacement, provided they are in the formal workforce. In Canada, however, most women are only guaranteed 55 per cent of their insurable income during maternity leave, except in Quebec, where women receive 70 to 75 per cent of their insured income.
  • Breastfeeding has been shown to dramatically reduce illness and death among infants and toddlers. That’s why 114 countries have laws guaranteeing women the right to a break to breastfeed at work; yet not a single Canadian province does.

The news isn’t entirely bad. Canadian policies guaranteeing paid leave to care for dependants with serious illnesses (55 per cent of insured earnings during 6 weeks over a 26-week period) are among the best in the world. Of the countries studied, only 39 guarantee such paid leave to care for a family member who is gravely ill.

There is wide variation in laws and practices from province to province in Canada, Prof. Jody Heymann, Director of the Institute, said, especially when it comes to helping parents handle pregnancy and childbirth.

“Quebec offers parents more choice, higher wage replacement rates and five weeks paternity leave for men’s exclusive use,” Heymann said. “In addition, Quebec allows self-employed workers to opt into parental benefits. No such provisions exist for self-employed workers in the rest of Canada,” a group that makes up 15 per cent of the employed workforce.

The Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University was created to conduct and support world-class research into the impact of social conditions on health and to lead programs designed to translate research findings into policies and programs on national and global scales that change the social conditions under which the worst off live.

The founding Director of the Institute, Heymann, is one of the world’s leading experts on working families. She has explained the plight of poor working families in the United States to Congress and has advised UNESCO, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Following her study entitled Work, Family, and Equity Index: How Does the U.S. Measure Up?, she testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions in support of a bill to provide American workers with paid sick leave.

The full report of The WECanada Work Equity Index is available on the Institute’s website at

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