Organization helps young workers with bad bosses

Devan C. Tasa, Contributor  Ω

Around five years ago, an ice cream parlour in Vancouver that was shutting down for the winter laid off all of its workers without any notice or severance pay.

The B.C. Employment Standards Branch was unwilling to step in until the workers completed a form that must also be filled in by the employer. The employer was unwilling to co-operate.

The workers were left with one option, says Stephen Von Sychowski, who was friends with one of the workers.

“That’s when we actually did picket that business and actually did, over the course of two days, win the severance pay,” Von Sychowski said.

That event inspired the creation of the Employee Action and Rights Network (EARN) in 2010, which was founded to help non-unionized workers deal with bad employers, educate young workers about their rights in the workplace and advocate for improvements to labour standards.

Von Sychowski is now the chair of the B.C. Federation of Labour’s Young Workers Committee, which is the organization behind EARN.

If a non-unionized worker wants to deal with a problem with their boss, that worker must first go to the Employment Standards Branch’s website, then fill out a form called a “self-help kit.” The self-help kit must be filled out within six months.

Problems that the self-help kit can deal with include not being paid properly, not getting a notice of termination and severance pay when being laid off and the employee having to pay for obtaining and cleaning a work uniform.

The worker must then give the filled-out self-help kit with their grievance to their employer. If the employer does not respond to the self-help kit within 15 days, only then can a worker ask the Employment Standards Branch for help.

Von Sychowski says that most non-unionized workers, fearing being dismissed from their jobs, simply don’t fill out the self-help kits.

“A large amount of people will simply say: ‘Well, forget about it. I’m not going to take that risk. I’m not going to do that. It’s too intimidating, it’s too risky’ and so a lot of the complaints just disappear,” he said.

That’s where workers can contact EARN for help. Over the last year, EARN has assisted between 120 and 150 workers. EARN now has around 1,500 members.

“Our goal is not just to create a large membership that’s names on paper,” said Von Sychowski. “It’s to create an activist base of non-union workers that can work collectively with us and take some action to improve things out there.”

The liquor server wage is one thing that EARN is taking action against. On May 1, most workers will have a $10.25 an hour minimum wage. But those that serve liquor will have a minimum wage that is $1.25 per hour less.

“We believe that there should be a minimum wage and there shouldn’t be anything below that,” said Von Sychowski. “The minimum is the minimum.”

EARN is also calling on the provincial government to restore a regulation requiring there be more than one person working at a gas station during late night hours.

As of Apr. 15, 2012, late night gas station workers can work alone if the employers install a time-lock safe for cash, limit access to the inside of the station, provide video surveillance and provide the employee with monitored emergency transmitters.

Those that want to join EARN can do so by filling out an online form at www.earnbc.ca. It is free to join and any information and correspondence is confidential. Those who want their help can contact them at info@earnbc.ca.