Labour Studies Index

Gifts of Rights?: A Legal History of Employment Pension Plans in Canada

Document type Thesis
Author Shilton, Elizabeth
Degree Ph.D., Law
Publisher University of Toronto; Toronto
Date 2011-06-13T15:08:32Z
Pages 442


This thesis explores the role played by law in the current breakdown of the employment pension system, focusing on the legal status of pension plans within the employment relationship, and on the way lawmakers have defined, shaped and enforced employee pension rights. It traces the legal status of employment pensions from their 19th Century characterization as gifts to reward employees for long and faithful service, to their current 21st Century construction as terms of the contract of employment. The thesis argues that Canadian lawmakers within all three legal regimes structuring rights and obligations within the employment relationship – the common law, collective bargaining law and statute law – have contributed significantly to the overall dysfunction of the system by cultivating both substantive and procedural legal rules that locate critical issues concerning the scope, design, durability and distribution of employee pension rights within the control of employers. Predictably, Canadian employers have used that control to shape pension plans to meet their distinct business needs, needs that frequently collide with worker needs and expectations for good pensions. Even in the heyday of the ‘Fordist’ work structures that fostered employment pension plans, the system delivered benefits very unequally, privileging the interest of elite workers who fit the ‘male breadwinner’ mould, and failing to provide adequate and secure pensions for the majority of Canadian workers. Changes in the organization of work in Canada, including trends towards more precarious work, will continue to exacerbate the problems inherent in the system, escalating its distributional inequalities. In the current round of pension law reform, Canada’s policy makers should abandon the effort to repair a system which is flawed at its core, and should instead seek a new foundation for pensions outside the employment relationship, a foundation which will not subordinate the pension interests of workers to the business interests of employers.