Your employment contract is one of the most important agreements you’ll ever enter into. It sets out the details of your job and gives you rights your employer must respect. Learn about your contractual rights as a worker.
The main legislation in BC that protects workers may not apply to you
This page explains the main legislation protecting workers in BC. Some types of workers aren’t covered by this law. The legislation doesn’t apply to people who are:
- in licensed professions, such as doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers, and realtors
- in industries regulated by the federal government — for example, banks and airlines
- in certain government incentive programs while receiving income assistance, disability benefits or Employment Insurance
- secondary-school students working at their school or in work-study programs
- primary- or secondary-school students working 15 hours or less a week as newspaper carriers
Are you an employee or an independent contractor?
“When I was hired, my employer asked me to sign an agreement saying I was an independent contractor. I didn’t realize it at the time but they did this to avoid paying me for overtime. Turns out I wasn’t an independent contractor, despite what our agreement said. I was able to enforce my rights as an employee.”
– Lucca, Vancouver
Your legal rights, and the steps you can take to enforce them, depend on your employment status. Many rights (for example, the right to be paid for working overtime) are only given to workers (called “employees” under the law) and not to independent contractors.
The law defines an “independent contractor” as someone who’s self-employed. In other words, they run their own business.
To decide whether someone is an employee or independent contractor, courts look at the facts of each work situation. Courts ask questions like:
- How much direction and control over the work does the person have? Does the person have their own clients or do they get all their clients from the employer?
- What was each party’s understanding of the relationship when they started?
- Does the person have a personal chance for profit or a risk of loss?
Even if your employer claims you’re an independent contractor, you may still be an employee. The above factors, on their own, aren’t enough to prove you’re an independent contractor. For example, you may be an employee even if you:
- agree to be an independent contractor
- charge GST
- work at more than one job
- submit invoices instead of time cards
- don’t have statutory deductions taken from your earnings
- work independently without much supervision
- drive your own car
- provide your own tools
- are paid by piece rate or commission
If you really are an employee, you’ll have an employment contract. It doesn’t have to be written down. It’s simply an agreement between an employee and employer, and it can be verbal.
An employer may ask you to agree that you have your own business and are selling your services to them. However, even if you sign something that says you’re an independent contractor, you may still be an employee under the law.
What your employment contract covers
There’s always a contract between a worker and an employer. Even if nothing is in writing, an employment contract still exists. A worker’s agreement to work for an employer, and the employer’s agreement to pay the worker in return, forms a contract. (See our guidance on making a contract for the elements of a valid contract.)
Your employment contract gives you and your employer certain rights and obligations. For example, you have the right to be paid for the work you do. Your employer has the right to give you reasonable instructions. These rights and obligations are called “contractual terms”.
An employment contract is made up of both “express terms” and “implied terms”.
Some contractual terms are explicitly agreed to between you and your employer
These are called express terms, and may include:
- your hours of work, including overtime hours
- your wages, including overtime pay
- how much vacation you’re owed
- where you’ll be working
- how much notice you’ll get if you’re fired or laid off
The express terms may not all be included in one written document (or they may not be written at all). For example, they may be expressed in:
- the job advertisement
- letters or emails you received from your employer before you start working
- anything you’re asked to sign before or after you start working
- announcements made by your employer on a notice board at work
- an office policy manual or staff handbook
If your employer makes a promise to you about your job, ask for it in writing. Suppose you’re promised a promotion six months down the road with a pay increase. Get that on paper. It’ll be much easier to prove that the promise forms part of your employment contract.
Some terms are implied in the contract
Some contractual terms aren’t expressly stated in a contract. These implied terms are words or provisions that a court assumes were intended to be included in a contract. The following terms are commonly implied into any employment contract:
- You and your employer have a duty to trust one another. For example, it’s assumed you won’t give away your employer’s industrial secrets.
- You and your employer have a duty of care towards one another. For example, your employer will provide a safe work environment for you.
- You have a duty to follow any reasonable instructions given by your employer.
- Your employer has a duty to pay you wages and provide work.
The law in BC also gives employees certain rights that can’t be contracted out of. See below.
If your employer breaks your contract
A contract may be broken if either you or your employer fails to follow a term in it — for example, if you aren’t paid for overtime at the rate you were promised. This is known as a breach of contract.
If your employer breaks your contract, try first to arrange a face-to-face meeting to sort out the matter informally.
If you think your employer has breached BC’s main law protecting workers, you can lodge a complaint with the Employment Standards Branch. For the steps on how to do this, see our page on notice periods and severance pay, under the “Deal with the Problem” section.
Alternatively, you may decide to start a legal action against your employer. Claims for breach of contract are heard in civil court. If your lawsuit is for less than $35,000, you can sue in Small Claims Court. This is faster and less complicated than suing in BC Supreme Court. If your claim is for less than $5,000, it’ll be heard by the Civil Resolution Tribunal. This is an online tribunal that encourages a collaborative approach to resolving disputes.
If you think your employer has breached your contract, it’s important to get legal advice. Your options for starting a claim depend on your particular problem, and a lawyer will be able to advise you on the best course of action.
If a job offer is withdrawn
Say your employer offers you a job, but then withdraws it. Your rights in this circumstance depend on how the job offer was made.
If it was made subject to conditions and those conditions weren’t met (for example, you had to provide references, but didn’t), you won’t have a claim against your employer. That’s because there never was a binding employment contract. There was only ever a conditional offer.
If the job offer was unconditional, you may have a claim for breach of contract. That’s because once a job has been offered and the offer has been accepted, there is an employment contract. When the employer withdraws the offer, it’s as if you’re being dismissed without notice. See our guidance on how much notice your employer needs to give you.
If your employer withdraws a conditional job offer after you’ve met all the conditions, you may have a claim for the same reason.
How your contractual rights relate to your rights at law
Most workers are given rights under the law. These are called statutory rights. Your statutory rights are in addition to your contractual rights.
Generally, you and your employer are free to agree on the terms of your employment contract. However, your rights under your contract can’t be less than your statutory rights. For example, you can’t agree to allow your employer to pay you less than the minimum wage.
If your employment includes a “probationary period”
It’s common for employers to subject new workers to a “probationary period” when they first start work. Employers use probationary periods to assess a worker’s performance in a new position, and to give them time to adjust.
Your employer may claim your usual employment rights don’t apply during the probationary period. For example, they may tell you that you can be fired without notice at any time during the probationary period. This isn’t necessarily the case.
Even if your employment includes a probationary period, you have all the rights of an employee once you enter into a contract. Your contract could, however, include terms that only apply during your probationary period. But these terms can’t take away your statutory rights.
Try to reach a consensus with your employer on how your performance will be measured during the probationary period. Agree on objective criteria, and include them in your contract. During the probationary period, ask your employer what you can do to improve your performance.
If you enter multiple short-term contracts
Some statutory rights only come into effect after you’ve been working for a certain period of time. Your employer might want you to enter into multiple short-term contracts to prevent these rights from kicking in.
If you’ve been working for the same employer under multiple short-term contracts, this may be the same as if you’d been hired indefinitely. In other words, it’s as if you’d been continuously employed without a set date for the end of your employment. This means you might qualify for statutory rights.
Sometimes entering into multiple short-term contracts is necessary — for example, if your employer relies on annual funding for a position. If you’re hired on a fixed-term contract, it’s a good idea to get your employer to explain why in writing (for example, in your offer letter).
If your employer wants to change your contract
In certain situations, your employer may want to make changes to your employment contract after you’ve started working. It’s considered a proposal to change your contract if, for example, your employer wants to:
- change the type of work you do
- change your place of work
- cut your pay
- change the number of hours you work
In theory, your employer can’t change your contract without you agreeing to the change. In order for the change to be valid, your employer may also be required to offer you something of value in exchange (for example, a monetary bonus).
If the change your employer wants to make is substantial — and you don’t accept it — you may have the same rights as someone who’s fired without just cause. This is called “constructive dismissal.” See our guidance on if your employer has made big changes to your job.
Step 1. Find out about your rights
In BC, the Employment Standards Act sets out minimum standards that your employer must follow. But not all jobs are covered by this law, and in some cases only parts of the law apply. See “Understand your legal rights”, above.
Find out the minimum standards that apply to your job. See the Employment Standards Branch website for guidance.
Step 2. Review your employment contract
Read your contract carefully before signing. Consider seeing an employment lawyer for advice to make sure you understand what you’re signing. Once you’ve signed it, you may not be able to make changes unless your employer agrees.
Consider asking for more time before signing the contract if:
- you need help understanding what the contract says
- you want legal advice about the contract
Generally, your employer must give you a reasonable amount of time to review and consider the contract before you sign. If you feel pressured into entering the contract before you’ve had time to think it through, the contract may be unenforceable.
Step 3. Ask for changes to your contract
You might want to ask for changes to the contract before you sign it. For example, you might not want to work weekends. But if your employer doesn’t agree with your proposed change, the job offer may be withdrawn.
If your contract gives you fewer rights than you’re entitled to under the law, the law takes precedence. For example, say you agree with your employer that you won’t go on pregnancy leave and you sign off on this in your employment contract. Since taking pregnancy leave is a right you have under the law, that section of the contract isn’t enforceable.
Does my employer need to give me notice before firing me during my probationary period?
In many cases, yes. Despite what your employer may tell you, you have the same rights as an employee even during a probationary period. That includes the right to notice and severance pay. See our guidance on how much notice your employer needs to give you.
However, if you’re fired for doing something seriously wrong, your employer needn’t give you notice or severance pay. This is called being fired for “just cause.” See our guidance on if you’re fired. For probationary workers, the standard for just cause dismissal is lower. In other words, your employer doesn’t need as good a reason to fire you as they would if you were a regular employee.
My contract says I can’t work for a competitor after my employment ends. Is this legal?
This type of provision is called a “restrictive covenant”, and your employer is allowed to include it in your employment contract. Whether it’s actually enforceable is another matter.
Generally, it can be difficult for employers to enforce a restrictive covenant. In most cases it’ll be up to your employer to prove why it’s necessary. In particular, a court would take the following into consideration:
- Your employer must show a connection between the covenant and their business interests.
- The covenant must not overly impair your ability to enter new agreements.
- The covenant must be fair and reasonable (for example, it can’t be too long).
- The terms of the covenant must be clear.
As an independent contractor, can I file a claim with the Employment Standards Branch?
No. As an independent contractor, you aren’t covered by the main legislation in BC that protects workers. However, you have other options if your employer breaks your contract. See the “Understand your legal rights” section above.
The Employment Standards Branch deals with complaints if your employer violated your rights under the main legislation protecting workers in BC.
Employment and Social Development Canada can help you bring a claim against your employer if you work in a federally regulated industry.