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Workers say lack of breaks is a ‘widespread problem’

More education on labour standards needed, says workers advocate

3 min read
A barista steams milk for latte on an espresso machine at a Halifax coffee shop.
caption A barista steams milk for latte on an espresso machine at a Halifax coffee shop.
Hope Edmond

Jenna Giffin starts her day in the food industry at 6:30 a.m. and clocks out at 2:30 p.m. She began her employment at the end of August and says she received her first break on Nov. 7.

 “It’s not realistic to work eight hours without eating,” Giffin said.

Her employer has no designated break room for its employees, and she said they expect employees to eat and rest in between serving customers.

She often finds herself eating a protein bar in the bathroom and claims this has affected her eating habits. “It’s definitely not a healthy lifestyle.”

It’s difficult to know how many workers have the same complaint. The Signal asked the provincial Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration for the number of complaints filed by employees regarding breaks. But the department doesn’t keep track of these statistics, said spokesperson Chloee Sampson.

However, workers interviewed for this story say it’s a common problem among their colleagues.

The Nova Scotia Labour Standards Code states that employees are entitled to a 30-minute break for every five hours of work. The code outlines the rights and benefits of all employees in the province.

It states anyone who fails to work in accordance with the act is guilty of an offence. 

Employees can make complaints about workplace violations to the director of labour standards. If found guilty, corporations can be fined up to $25,000. Corporations and employers also can be penalized with a three-month prison sentence. 

Syd Blum, an organizer for the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre, said employees often encounter financial barriers when taking legal action.

“We get so many people who have very, very, very legitimate cases against their employer. But unfortunately they don’t have the time or money to go after them and get justice,” Blum said.

The centre provides legal advice to low-wage and non-unionized employees.

Blum said break violations are a “widespread problem.”

Widespread problem

Blum believes the issue stems from “an implicit pressure put on employees to not take breaks and to generally not assert their rights at work, especially if you’re a low-wage worker in a high-turnover position.”

Giffin said she did not file a complaint against her employer.

“The last few months I still kind of felt new and you don’t want to ruffle feathers. You don’t want to question things,” she said. 

Adrie Cameron, a master’s student at McGill University, said she had a work placement in Nova Scotia that involved working with students. Cameron said she would arrive at her placement at 7:30 a.m. and although she had a scheduled lunch at 2:30 p.m., she was expected to do paperwork without a break until she left at 6 p.m.

The consequences

Cameron says her productivity suffered and this experience made her rethink her career aspirations.

“My brain power was dwindling … and those students at the end of the day were not receiving the same quality of services,” Cameron said.

Giffin and Cameron both said they didn’t know their rights as employees.

Moving forward

Blum wants mandatory education programs about labour codes created for employers and employees. She also said combating workplace violations is much easier when workers are unionized.

In the service industry, “there are not a lot of unionized employees and because of that people don’t have that kind of protection, that collective agreement that a union would afford you,” Blum said.

Data published in 2023 by Statistics Canada shows that in 2022, 1.3 million Canadians in sales and customer service jobs are part of a union. This number of workers is about a three per cent increase from the previous year.

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About the author

Hope Edmond

Hope Edmond is a master's of journalism student from Enfield, Nova Scotia. She enjoys sharing the stories of others.

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