Provincial Labour Minister Harry Bains says British Columbia is in a “relatively good position” to rebound strongly when the pandemic is over, having entered it with a thriving economy and workforce.
“Surrey is and will continue to be an incredibly strong business community,” he said. “Before the pandemic, B.C. was expected to lead the country in economic growth – this is in no small part due to Surrey and its extraordinary growth and aptitude for their business community.”
Bains noted Surrey was one of the fastest growing cities in Canada before the pandemic and is a “critical hub” of trade and business in B.C., with almost 3,000 businesses opening up every year.
“It is these businesses that provide one of the pillars of the community and we know right now these are exceptional times, calling for exceptional measures.”
Bains spoke in a “digital town hall” meeting via Zoom on Wednesday, sponsored by the Surrey Board of Trade. Trevor Hughes, Bains’ deputy minister, was also in on the meeting, as was board of trade CEO Anita Huberman.
“These are although very depressing and worrisome times for businesses and the general public, but I want to say we are a resilient community, we are a resilient province, and I think we have started with a very strong economic footing,” Bains said. “I think we will recover better than most, I believe. That will all depend on what we do today.”
Bains said the government is “actively working” on extending temporary layoff periods, and that people can expect to hear more about it in a few days. “We are about to take some steps to ensure that the workers and employers, who have to shut down either completely or partially, that those employees will continue to enjoy recall rights and the benefits that go along with it, and the employers don’t have to sever them and pay severance pay if they don’t recall them within those 13 weeks.”
The labour minister and veteran Surrey-Newton MLA said people who are under quarantine or self-isolating should not have to worry about losing their jobs.
“We’ve passed legislation to ensure no worker loses their job for following the direction of the provincial health officer,” he said.
Huberman asked what if someone is reluctant to return to work because they are afraid of getting the virus. Can they refuse to come into work?
Bains replied that under the WCB Act, employees have the right to say no to an unsafe workplace, “and that if they feel it is hazardous to them or to others, they can refuse that work.”
“If simply saying that ‘I’m afraid to come to work,’ although there’s no evidence, I think the employer and employee have to work and they perhaps should get in touch with either WCB or the provincial health office to alleviate that fear. “I understand than many people are fearful these days.”
Hughes, meantime, said WorkSafe BC will play a “very active role” in the re-opening of the economy. “What WorkSafe is going to do is start to work with industry associations, employers, sector associations and organized labour to identify guidelines in specific industries, work with employers, to figure out what makes sense for safe and healthy workplaces as they re-open.”
Bains fielded a number of questions from his “virtual” audience.
“I always say worker safety is my number-one priority,” he said.
The Now-Leader recently learned some dock workers in Surrey had raised safety concerns about working in close proximity to one another, and the risk of transmission.
A question put to Bains from the Now-Leader was if he was hearing of any problems with lashers and other dock workers being able to maintain social distancing on the job at Fraser Surrey Docks.
Bains replied that he’s “so pleased” the Vancouver Port put together “very strong guidelines for employers to follow and for employees to follow, to protect those employees who come to the dock to pick up product and then to deliver. I think they added additional washroom facilities, added additional washing facilities,” he said, as well as hand-sanitizing bottles.
“I think Fraser Surrey Docks is also a part of that and I’m definitely happy that’s happened there.”
Bains also replied to a question from the audience concerning Surrey’s policing transition plan to replace the RCMP with a made-in-the-city police force.
“There has to be transparency, there has to be accountability,” Bains said. “People need to know what the impact will be, both financially and security wise and safety wise, and how the transition will take place. I think it is up to the City of Surrey to explain to the people of Surrey, and answer all those questions in a transparent way, and then I’m expecting that every citizen expects that. I hope the City of Surrey will listen to those concerns and questions, and answer their questions.”
On another topic, Huberman asked if the government is considering delaying in increasing minimum wage.
Bains confirmed the 75-cent increase, to $14.60, will go ahead as planned on June 1. “We recognize that the lower-paid workers need support during the economic downturn caused by the current pandemic,” he said. “All governments should and must work for all British Columbians.”
Huberman noted that one-third of Surrey’s land base in agricultural.
Bains said 750 workers came from Mexico last week, “and I think another 2,000 or 3,000 more are coming.”
They will be subject to a 14-day quarantine, he said.