Total employment in Canada in 1999 was 15.9 million. That same year, the unemployment rate was 7.6 percent. Unemployment in Canada has remained fairly constant at this rate during the 1990s, despite the strong economy. However, there were real declines in unemployment compared with the 1980s, when unemployment hovered near 10 percent.
With the exception of members of the armed forces, all workers in Canada have the right to form unions. Unions may organize strikes, but employees of the government who provide essential services, including law enforcement and medical care, are forbidden to strike. In 2000, there were a number of notable strikes, including one in British Columbia that closed the province's seaports for 10 days. The province also saw an illegal nurses strike in 2001, as well as a crippling public transit strike in Vancouver which shut down the bus and light rail system for 4 months. Specific laws that oversee the formation and conduct of unions vary from province to province. Unions are independent of the government and often form coalitions with other trade organizations or international bodies. Outside of the government, union membership is 29.5 percent nationwide. The government vigorously enforces union protections, and there are provincial and federal agencies that monitor and investigate working conditions and worker safety.
The standard work week varies from province to province. It ranges from 40 to 48 hours per week, but all provinces mandate at least one 24-hour rest period during the week. The minimum wage rates are set by each province and also vary widely. The lowest minimum wage is Can$5.25 per hour in Newfoundland and the highest is Can$7.60 in British Columbia. In addition, Alberta and Ontario have lower minimum wages for workers under the age of 18. The minimum wage is not sufficient for a single worker to support a family and, in fact, those families with only a single wage earner making minimum wage are classified as being below the national poverty line. There are prohibitions on child labor, and children under the age of either 15 or 16—depending on the province—are not allowed to work without parental consent. Some provinces also have restrictions on youths working at night or in hazardous jobs.
Several groups are under-represented in the workforce and are often paid less than their counterparts in similar occupations. Native American peoples are particularly subject to discrimination and their proportion of the workforce is far lower than their proportion of the population. The same is true of people with disabilities. People with disabilities who are capable of work represent 6.5 percent of the total population, but only 2.7 percent of current employees. Women are employed in all sectors of the economy and laws guarantee equality in all areas of employment except the military. Under the terms of a 1998 court decision, the federal government has been paying back wages to women who were paid less than their male counterparts in the same occupation. However, disparities in income still exist between men and women with similar jobs.
Although the nation is officially bilingual, cultural pressure and regulations force many English-speakers in Quebec and French-speakers elsewhere in the country to use the language of the majority of that particular province. For instance, the provincial government of Quebec limits access to English-language schools and places restrictions on the use of English for commercial purposes and in advertising.