Ottawa’s Political staffers and Parliament Hill employees can be justifiably confused about what labour, employment and human rights laws apply to them. After all, most other workers in Ontario are provincially regulated. But lots of employees in Ottawa fall into the rare exception to this rule: federally regulated employees. Then special rules apply to special jobs. Some of these unique positions are highly unionized, others are very solitary non-union positions. Sometimes employees working side by side in the same office may find that different laws govern their employment relationships.
I’m writing this blog on request by a friend from my own very brief stint as one of the surprisingly high number of employees working on Parliament Hill (thanks for the inspiration J!). And I have to admit that back when I worked on Parliament Hill (long before law school) I had no idea what employment laws applied to me. Luckily, I didn’t have any legal problems!
WHAT LAWS APPLY TO POLITICAL STAFFERS AND PARLIAMENTARY HILL EMPLOYEES
Below is a very brief and basic summary of some of the key legislation governing the work of employees on or around the Hill. Employees with specific questions should be cautious of the many exceptions and special rules, and should consider getting legal advice.
CANADIAN HUMAN RIGHTS ACT
In 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected an argument by the House of Commons that its management of employees was covered by “parliamentary privilege.” In this case, the Court held that parliamentary privilege didn’t automatically prevent the application of the Canadian Human Rights Act in the House of Commons. Of course, that decision doesn’t mean that privilege will never apply: Parliament can still assert privilege when faced with a Human Rights Act-based complaint in appropriate circumstances.
The Canadian Human Rights Act, like provincial human rights codes, bans discrimination on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted. The same law prohibits sexual harassment.
CANADA LABOUR CODE & PARLIAMENTARY EMPLOYMENT AND STAFF RELATIONS ACT
Lots of Hill employees, including employees in the Senate, House of Commons, Library of Parliament and researchers working for Members of Parliament fall under the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act (with some exceptions). Strictly speaking, the Canada Labour Code does not apply to these Parliamentary employees, however the Act says that the same basic employment standards and occupational health and safety rules apply. This means the same minimum wage, for example.
Recent Amendments to this law would extend the Canada Labour Code’s workplace violence and harassment protections to employees under the PESRA
PUBLIC SERVICE EMPLOYMENT ACT
Many other parliamentary employees are covered by the Public Service Employment Act (or PSEA). This Act covers a number of public service employees and Government Ministers’ executive assistants and other staff. Most significantly, the PSEA allows for the dismissal of certain political staffers without cause. This Act sets out specific rules about terminations, layoffs and how complains about discrimination contrary to the Canadian Human Rights Act should be dealt with.
Lots of public servants are unionized. But most political staffers on the Hill are not. At present, only the federal NDP caucus’ staffers are represented by a union. This gives them additional rights not available from statute alone.
This barely exposes the tip of the iceberg. Hill staffers have a lot to contend with when trying to figure out which laws apply to them. Often, a political staffer’s employment will be governed by overlapping laws – not to mention the content of any employment contract, Collective Agreement or employer policies. Unfortunately, this means that some employees file complaints in the wrong place and have their cases dismissed before ever receiving justice.
While people of all ages work on the Hill or for politicians, I’m inclined to agree with Elizabeth May: young staffers are particularly vulnerable under the current web of laws. It’s a highly competitive and political world where personal relationships with important people matter not only for your success on the job but your future political career. Add to this that young political staffers often lack the financial means to hire a lawyer or the legal knowledge to assert their rights in the context of a highly complex legislative scheme. In these circumstances, the imbalance of power can be very extreme between a 19-year-old student intern and a 60-year-old government minister. Heck, given the demographics on Parliament Hill it’s likely your boss was a lawyer themselves before being called to public life!
In the absence of serious law reform, knowledge is power. Parliament Hill employees should take some serious time to educate themselves about their rights and consider speaking to their Union Representative or an Employment Lawyer if they have concerns.
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