A proposed overhaul of Alberta's labour and employment standards codes includes job protection for unpaid leaves, a hybrid union certification process and first contract legislation.

Bill 17, the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act, marks the first time the law has been changed since 1988.

Many of the changes were based on advice from veteran labour lawyer Andrew Sims, who was hired by the government to provide expert advice.

"This is not a cutting-edge, lead-the-country reform," Sims told reporters Wednesday. "It is in most respects a bring-the-best-experiences-from-elsewhere to Alberta.

Minimum work age raised to 13

"There are some novel things in here that are new, hopefully add efficiency, but it brings us up into the mainstream of Canadian legislation."

The bill raises the minimum age for employment to 13 from 12, and limits the type of work youths can do, so they aren't exposed to hazardous materials or situations.

The changes also prevent employers from docking employee pay when a customer leaves without paying for gas or a restaurant bill.

If a first contract between an employer and a newly certified union local isn't reached within 90 days, the matter can be referred to the labour relations board which can appoint an arbitrator, if required.

One of the changes most touted by Labour Minister Christina Gray in the last few weeks is a provision that allows Albertans to take unpaid leave to deal with personal situations without threat of losing their job.

Some of the leaves include: long-term illness and injury (16 weeks), family responsibility (five days), bereavement (3 days), and a child's critical illness (36 weeks).

Unpaid leaves could also be taken by victims of domestic violence (10 days) and people who have had a child die or disappear. The leave can range as long as two years if the child's death was caused by crime.

Gray said many workplaces already offer these provisions to their employees.

"This bill isn't about protecting those who already work in favourable workplace conditions," she said. "It's about protecting those who don't."

Changes to union certification

One of the most controversial changes will likely involve how unions are certified.

For weeks, opposition parties have questioned the governing NDP about whether a card check system was under consideration.

Card checks, which were used in Alberta prior to 1988, allows union certification without a secret vote. Consent is based on the number of people who are card-carrying union members.

The government is proposing a hybrid model, based on advice from Sims.

A vote won't be required if at least 65 per cent of employees have verified membership in a union. A secret vote will be held if that number is between 40 and 65 per cent.

The bill also deals with employees on farms and ranches who are not family members.

Family members exempt on farms

Employment standards apply to them. However, the government, perhaps mindful of the public firestorm over Bill 6 in the fall of 2015, has exempted family members on farms and ranches from these requirements.

Gray said the changes will not prevent children from taking part in 4H clubs or other activities on a farm.

Opposition MLAs criticized the government for what they say was a truncated consultation period that ended last month.

Both Gray and Sims insisted the legislation wasn't written prior to the consultation period, which closed on April 18.

"I have 45 years experience in this," Sims said. "So when people say, 'Oh it was too short a period' -- most of this is not new to people who are expert in the field."

Sims said the people who were consulted on the labour and management sides of the equation know the issues too.

"They are issues that are core to their operations," he said. "Obviously, the government making choices between the options is a challenge, but it's not exploring new ground."

If passed, most of the bill will come into effect on Jan. 1, 2018. The government will take more time to update the lists of allowable work activities for youth between 13 and 18.

Children under 12 can work in artistic endeavours, but they have to get a permit from the government.

Split bill in two 

Both Wildrose Leader Brian Jean and Progressive Conservative caucus leader Ric McIver say the government should split the employment standards and labour code changes into two separate bills, and allow for more consultation on the latter.

Jean said Wildrose is prepared to support job protection for workers who need to take unpaid leave.

He suggested the NDP is trying to pressure opposition parties into voting for sweeping changes to the labour code by bundling them with compassionate leave for workers.

On the certification issue, Jean said a secret ballot should be held every time workers vote on whether to unionize.

"I think the secret ballot is a cornerstone of our democracy," he said.

McIver accused the NDP of using the story of Amanda Jensen, a Lethbridge mother who lost her job after taking time off to care for her son with leukemia, as a way to distract from other parts of the bill.

"This government is hiding some pretty negative legislation behind this poor woman, who's just trying to look after her child with cancer," he said. "It's despicable that they would use her to block political fire on a negative bill like the one they rolled out in front of us today."

McIver said the labour situation in Alberta was fine until the NDP was elected.