Employment Regulations in Canada
These laws are complex and subject to frequent alterations in response to changes in the economy and circumstances (such as the COVID-19 pandemic).
- Who Is Covered under Canada’s Employment Laws?
- Regulated Professions
- Workers’ Rights in Canada
Canadian laws protect all workers in Canada, including foreign temporary workers and those who are not citizens but have permanent resident status. Because immigrants are sometimes exploited and unfairly treated by unscrupulous employers, it’s important to know that all foreign workers in Canada have the legal right to:
- Be paid for their labour;
- Have a safe workplace; and
- Keep their passport or work permit in their possession.
If you plan to or have immigrated to Canada, it is helpful to familiarise yourself with the current laws in your province, so as to avoid being taken advantage of by an employer. Every province or territory has a department that deals with labour and employment laws, which can guide you about issues such as allowed hours of work, rest periods, fair pay and working conditions. As a foreign worker, you have the right to call or visit these offices; an employer cannot punish or have a foreign worker deported for contacting an employment standards office. You can find the appropriate office from this list of provincial and territorial employment standards offices.
In Canada, about 20% of jobs are regulated to ensure that professionals and tradespeople are competent and meet the required standards of service and training, in order to protect the health and safety of Canadians consumers.
If your occupation is regulated, your qualifications must be recognized by a provincial or territorial regulatory authority before you can practice in Canada. Some common regulated professions in Canada include: chartered accountant, architect, dentist, dietitian, physician, early childhood educator, engineer, human resources professional, information technologist, lawyer, registered nurse, midwife, occupational therapist, social worker, teacher, and veterinarian.
Each province or territory has a regulatory body that certifies and licences qualified professionals in each of these fields and maintains standards of practice and ethics. These bodies can discipline and even expel members who fail to meet these standards or violate their code of ethics. Many tradespeople, such as plumbers and electricians, also need certifications and licensing through their own regulatory bodies in order to practice in a particular province. Canadian Immigrant magazine has assembled a useful list of links of regulatory bodies for both professionals and tradespeople.
Each regulatory body has its own method for evaluating the educational qualifications of a candidate, their work experience, and their professional skills. For immigrants, this means that even if you are certified in your home country, it may not be easy for you to practise your profession again in Canada. In some fields, such as medicine, to qualify you may need to conduct further studies, complete practicums and/or take exams in order to be licensed. This can be an arduous process, but some universities and regulatory bodies have bridging programs that are designed specifically for immigrants to help them make the leap to practising their profession in Canada.
It’s a good idea to reach out to the regulatory body in the province to which you plan to move to find out what would be required. It is due to the challenges posed by this issue that many immigrants choose to go into a non-regulated professional field instead — e.g. doctors and engineers working for Uber.
What follows is a general overview of the laws that apply to workers. To learn more about the specific laws in your province, you can find a list of helpful links.
Canada’s federal government as well as each province have human rights codes that are designed, among other things, to protect workers against discrimination in the workplace. Federally regulated workers — not just federal government workers, but also people who work in federally regulated industries such as banks, trucking companies, broadcasters and telecommunications companies — are subject to national laws, including the Canada Labour Code.
Federal anti-discrimination laws include the Canadian Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, race, age, ethnicity, marital status, disability and other grounds. It indicates that all employees must be treated equally. Under the law, employers have a “duty to accommodate” in situations where an employee may need to be treated a little differently to have equal opportunity in the workplace, as long as it does not bring “undue hardship” to the company. For example, they may need to alter the work environment or duties to make it possible for a person with a physical disability to do the job.
Another federal law, the Employment Equity Act, requires federally regulated businesses and organisations to improve job opportunities for four specific groups who have been traditionally underrepresented in many fields: women, Aboriginal peoples (First Nations, Inuit, Métis), people with disabilities, and members of visible minorities.
The federal Canada Labour Code governs the rights and responsibilities of about 12,000 businesses and 820,000 employees — about 6% of all Canadian workers. It covers:
- Workplace health and safety;
- Industrial relations: the right of workers to join and participate in the lawful activities of a union, labour-management relations, collective bargaining and unfair labour practises; and
- Employment standards, including holidays, vacations, working hours, unjust dismissals, minimum wage, layoff procedures and severance pay.
Employees in occupations not covered by federal regulations — such as restaurants, stores, schools, housing and most other workplaces — are covered by similar provincial laws that protect people from discrimination. Complaints about violations of human rights can be directed to the provincial or territorial human rights agency.
We will go into more detail about these issues below.
Workplace Health and Safety
Under the Canada Labour Code and the respective labour codes and employment laws of each province and territory, employers are expected to make every effort to provide a safe and healthy workplace. This includes, among other things, making sure that:
- Buildings, equipment and vehicles meet prescribed standards, along with needed protective barriers, fences, etc.;
- Employees are provided with sanitary facilities and clean drinking water; that there are first-aid facilities;
- Employees have whatever safety equipment, devices and clothing are required on the job;
- Ventilation, lighting, temperature, humidity, sound and vibration meet prescribed standards;
- The operation complies with fire safety standards;
- Employees get all needed safety training;
- They establish a health & safety committee and provide it with whatever is needed to ensure employee safety; and
- Many more, depending on the industry.
Additional regulations apply to health and safety standards in particular industries where work conditions present hazards to employees (such as oil exploration, fishing, etc.) Employers, including directors of corporations, who violate health and safety standards that pose risk to their workers can be prosecuted under federal or provincial laws and face large fines and even imprisonment. Therefore, if you plan to operate a business in Canada, you should be aware of these obligations.
Provinces differ in the specifics, but in general as a worker you have three basic rights for safety in any workplace in Canada:
- You have the right to know about hazards in your workplace and to be trained in how to protect yourself from harm.
- You have the right to refuse unsafe work, including situations where you are worried about workplace violence. You can’t be fired for asking your employer to solve a health or safety issue, for refusing unsafe work or following health and safety laws as set down by the province’s labour ministry. You should report hazards and violations to your supervisor; if necessary you can call the provincial labour ministry’s health and safety contact centre.
- You have the right to participate in identifying and fixing health and safety concerns in your workplace, such as by raising concerns or joining the health and safety committee.
Minimum wages are set by each province and have been rising in recent years. Some provinces have a regular annual increase linked to inflation. As of Oct. 1, 2021, they range from CAD $11.75 in New Brunswick to $16 in Nunavut. In some businesses such as restaurants, employers may collect tips and distribute them to all the employees involved in serving customers, over and above their wages.
In some provinces a slightly lower minimum wage can be applied to children under 18 who work part-time while attending school. It is illegal for employers to pay less than the minimum wage, and employees cannot agree to work for less.
Deductions from Wages
Employers are generally required to pay employees on a biweekly or sometimes monthly basis and to provide a proper pay statement (also called a “pay stub”) that shows: the regular wage and number of regular hours worked in the pay period; overtime wage and any overtime hours worked; deductions from wages, with a date and reason for each deduction; and total wages paid. The employer is required to keep accurate records of these items as well as vacation time accrued and used, and other employment-related details about the employee. It’s in your best interest as an employee to keep accurate records of your work time as well; in case of a dispute, they come handy.
Deductions are legally taken from your wages for one of three reasons:
- They are legally required (such as federal and provincial income taxes and Canada Pension Plan contributions);
- For extras that benefit the employee, such as premiums for an extended health plan, insurance or a company pension, for which the employee pays a portion; or
- Deduction that has been ordered by a court.
It’s generally illegal for your employer to deduct things such as cheque-cashing fees, cost of damage to company property or broken tools, personal safety equipment, and uniforms (with some exceptions). The employer can deduct a reasonable amount for housing and food if the employee is, for example, working in a remote location and has no other option; check your provincial laws to be sure the amount deducted is permitted.
Hours of Work
A typical work week in Canada is 8 hours a day, 40 hours per week. In many provinces, working longer hours requires a written agreement between the employer and employee, but this is subject to limitations. Most provinces also restrict the amount and type of paid work that can be done by youths under 18.
Typically, employers across Canada are required to pay 1.5 times the regular hourly wage when employees are asked to work beyond the usual work hours, but this can get tricky in certain industries where irregular work hours are required. Also, salaried employees may not be entitled to overtime pay, depending on the nature of their employment contract.
These rules differ among provinces. In Ontario, for example, the threshold for hourly workers is 44 hours per week. A worker normally earning CAD $15 per hour must be paid $22.50 for any hours worked above 44. However, an employee and an employer can agree in writing that the employee will receive paid time off instead of overtime pay. An employee who agrees to bank overtime hours must be given 1.5 hours of paid time off work for each hour of overtime worked. In some industries, employers are allowed to average overtime over a longer period of 4 weeks or less.
Canadians enjoy a number of holidays for which they are entitled to receive time off with pay. Depending on the province, these typically include:
New Year’s Day (Jan. 1);
Family Day/Heritage Day (mid-February);
Good Friday (prior to Easter);
Victoria Day (around May 24);
Canada Day (July 1);
Civic Holiday — given different names across the country (in early August);
Labour Day (first Monday in September);
Thanksgiving Day (second Monday in October),
Christmas Day (Dec. 25);
Boxing Day (Dec. 26);
Saint-Jean Baptiste Day (June 24, only in Quebec).
All provinces observe Remembrance Day (remembering the war dead) on Nov. 11, but it is a paid holiday only in some provinces. The federal government recently designated Sept. 30 as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (reflecting on the history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples). Federal employees get the day off, but this is not yet treated as a holiday in all provinces.
If the holiday falls on a day the employee doesn’t normally work, or while they are on vacation, they are usually entitled to a different paid day off. People who must work on the holiday (for instance, in a hospital or hotel) are typically entitled to receive pay at 1.5 times the regular rate, or may receive another paid day off in lieu. (This can often be advantageous for employees who wish to take a religious holiday off that is not observed as a public holiday in Canada.)
Generally speaking, all workers in Canada are entitled to at least 10 working days (effectively 2 weeks) of paid vacation after 12 months’ employment. In some provinces this increases to 3 weeks after a certain number of years in the job (5 years in Alberta and British Columbia, for example, and 8 years in Nova Scotia). Many employers provide additional paid vacation time as an employee benefit, based on a contract or collective agreement.
Employees can usually decide when to take their vacation, but employers may disallow it at a particular time for operational reasons. Generally, they must allow the employee to take the full vacation allotment in one piece, but it can be broken up if the employee so requests. Vacation pay is generally based on the employee’s normal wages, not including additions such as overtime pay or tips.
While many employers provide paid sick leave as an employee benefit, under the terms of a contract or collective agreement, most provinces do not mandate any paid time off for short-term illness. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the issue of sick leave to prominence in Canada, with most provinces instituting or extending sick leave provisions and subsidising employers to make sure their workers who are experiencing possible symptoms can isolate at home without risking their jobs or income. It’s too early to say whether these provisions will result in permanent changes to the laws.
Most provinces do require employers to grant unpaid sick leave to care for themselves or a sick family member; this ranges between 3 and 12 days, depending on the province. Employees wishing to take sick leave can be required to provide a doctor’s note or other proof of their need for the time off.
Maternity and Parental Leave
Workers in Canada are entitled to take partially-paid leave when they give birth to or adopt a child and return to their jobs afterward (or to a similar job, if the original one is no longer available).
Other Types of Leave
The Canada Labour Code, which covers federally regulated employees, mandates a wide variety of unpaid and paid leaves.
Federally regulated employees are entitled to five days’ personal leave each year, three of them paid, for specified reasons such as personal injury or illness, urgent family matters, or to attend their citizenship ceremony. Employees may take an unpaid medical leave of up to 17 weeks if they aren’t able to work because of an illness or injury, donating an organ, or medical appointments. If the injury or illness was work-related, the employee may be absent for an indefinite period. Bereavement leave of up to 10 days, 3 days paid, may be taken after the death of a close family member.
The federal code also provides for unpaid leaves for compassionate care (up to 28 weeks to care for a family member with a serious medical condition); victims of domestic violence (up to 10 days, to obtain counselling, relocate, appear in court, etc.); engaging in traditional Aboriginal practises (up to 5 days); jury or court duties (time necessary); or to serve in the military reserve.
Provincial labour codes may differ somewhat, but they typically offer similar opportunities for unpaid leaves. While this time may be unpaid, the law ensures that the employee’s job is protected while they deal with important issues.
Right to Collective Bargaining
Historically, many of the rights that Canadian employees enjoy — including minimum wage, holiday pay, maternity leave, and overtime premiums, as well as workplace health & safety regulations — were won by collective action through unions.
Unions continue to play an important role in Canadian life, with about 30% of workers belonging to one of more than 100 unions in the country, according to UFCW Canada, the largest private-sector union. Unionised workers include nurses, teachers, postal workers, journalists, many government workers and professional athletes, as well as retail store workers, manufacturing workers, miners, electricians and people in construction trades. The Canadian Labour Congress, an umbrella organisation for unions, is currently campaigning for a national “pharmacare” plan to ensure all Canadian workers can afford the medications they need.
Federal and provincial legislation regulates how unions in Canada operate. They are required to be democratic and financially accountable to members, and to have constitutions that are registered with government labour boards. The process for organising and certifying a union in Canada depends on regulations set out in the Canada Labour Code and provincial laws such as the Ontario Labour Relations Act, usually including a secret-ballot vote by workers.
The right to collective bargaining has been determined by the Supreme Court of Canada to be constitutionally protected under the guarantee of freedom of association enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
An important part of employment rights involves what happens when an employer wants to lay off or fire an employee. Whether, when and how this can happen may be governed by the federal or provincial labour code, depending on the employer.
The Canada Labour Code says an employer must:
- Give the employee 2 weeks’ notice of termination, or pay the employee 2 weeks’ wages if no notice is given, unless the employee quits, was working on a contract that has ended, has worked less than 3 months, the notice is of a lay-off and the job is not terminated, or the dismissal is for just cause.
- Pay severance to an employee who has served at least 12 months, for a minimum of 5 days’ pay or 2 days for each year of service.
If the employee is being laid off because of a strike or lockout, or the lay-off is for less than three months, or the employee maintains recall rights under a collective agreement, the lay-off is not considered a termination. If the employer can’t recall the employee, severance must be paid to the employee.
If an employee feels he or she was “unjustly dismissed,” under the Canada Labour Code they can request a written statement giving reasons for their dismissal and the employer must reply within 15 days. They can then file a complaint to the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB). The case may then be referred to an adjudicator who will hold a hearing and render a decision; in most cases, it’s up to the employer to justify the dismissal. They need to show that the employee showed a pattern of unacceptable behavior — incompetence, negligence and/or misconduct — and that the employer took progressive steps to correct the problems before deciding to fire the employee. Employees who have been unjustly dismissed may be able to get reinstatement or back pay.
Employees who are not federally regulated do not necessarily have these protections from “unjust dismissal.” Instead, there is a concept of “wrongful dismissal,” which means only that the employer has not provided the proper notification or pay in lieu of notification — they do not need to explain why the employee has been let go. Note, however, that unionised employees typically have additional protections against being fired from a job without justification.
Digital and Privacy Rights
Rapidly expanding technology presents a whole new set of concerns for workers, with the law still evolving in Canada.
Canada’s Privacy Commissioner has warned employees about their personal use of social media, pointing out that, subject to existing workplace policies and rules, some organisations can monitor their employees’ social media. When using social media in the workplace context, employees’ personal information can be collected and disclosed by the employer — including off-duty comments and postings that reflect on the employer. At the same time, employers are warned that tracking their employees through social media may be subject to privacy legislation in their province.
Canadian courts generally have been reluctant to acknowledge a worker’s right to digital privacy in the workplace when, for example, it involves communications made using a work computer, and especially when it involves wrongdoing. For example, pornography stored on a teacher’s laptop is not subject to right to privacy. Employers are generally advised to have very clear policies about digital privacy so that employees are aware that their emails, etc., may be monitored by their employer, if that’s the case.
The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) of 2001 provides private-sector privacy legislation that applies to federally regulated workplaces and sets out ground rules for how all companies across Canada should handle their employees’ personal information.
For example, the employer must specify why the company is collecting personal information from employees, and gain the employee’s consent for its collection, use, or disclosure. Employers may only collect information that's necessary for the purpose they've identified, and use it only for that purpose. They may keep the information only as long as it is needed for lawful purposes. The information must be accurate and up-to-date and safeguarded with appropriate security. Employees must be able to access personal information about themselves, and be able to challenge the accuracy and completeness of it to the person the company has designated as being responsible for privacy.
Many provinces have passed very similar private-sector personal information laws that apply to all employees.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada is currently undertaking a review of PIPEDA to make it more reflective of evolving digital technologies and bring it in line with current data protection regimes such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Canada has robust protections for employees in the workplace. But as the laws may differ between provinces and are subject to change, it is in a worker’s best interest to be familiar with their legal rights. Whether you are a Canadian citizen or a foreign worker, you have a right to be treated fairly and equitably, to have a safe workplace, and to be compensated properly.
If you choose to move to Canada, our team will be happy to assist you in your immigration journey. Contact us, and we will provide you with a realistic assessment of your chances for success. We will recommend the most suitable program for you and help prepare and submit appropriate applications and their supporting documents. If you have any specific questions about workers’ rights in Canada that are not covered by this article, please contact us, and we will be happy to help.