JULY 20, 2012
Does the Saskatchewan government respect international labour law?
If its ongoing labour legislation reform is any indication, the answer is no.
A half dozen proposals in the labour consultation paper the Saskatchewan Party government unveiled in May would definitely contravene International Labour Organization statutes.
In a move that could affect a large number of non-unionized workers, the consultation paper asks: "What limitations should there be on hours of work, if any?" Yet, any move to lengthen Saskatchewan's work week would contravene the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1957 ILO Convention that concerns the reduction of work hours to 40 hours a week.
The government's consultation paper directly attacks other collective bargaining rights enshrined by ILO conventions and recommendations. It questions whether employers should "be able to apply to the Labour Relations Board to rescind a certification order" on the grounds that a union is "not representing its employees."
Currently only union members have the right to decertify their union, and any change to that would threaten the workers' constitutionally protected right to freedom of association. ILO Convention No. 87, which Canada signed in 1972, notes: "Workers - organizations shall have the right to draw up their constitutions and rules, to elect their representatives in full freedom, to organize their administration and activities and to formulate their programs."
The Saskatchewan government's labour consultation paper also proposes allowing "an employer to voluntarily recognize an existing union without conducting a vote."
This raises the prospect of what the Trade Union Act currently refers to as a "company dominated organization." There's a long and ugly history of employers trying to bypass workers' legitimate representatives and establish more compliant "unions" with whom to negotiate. This is why ILO conventions No. 87 and No. 98 clearly stipulate that freedom of association means that workers have the right to join a trade union of their choice.
The government's consultation paper specifically threatens the collective bargaining rights of some of the most vulnerable unionized workers. A question in the paper asks, "Should businesses who bid on contracts to provide cafeteria, janitorial, or security in government-owned buildings be automatically subject to existing certification orders and collective bargaining agreements?"
The objective of eliminating these workers' successor rights - the transfer of the union and collective agreement if the employer changes - is to contract this work out to non-union employers, which would likely drive down cafeteria, janitorial and security workers' wages from $15 or $20 an hour to just above the minimum wage.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty in 2007 reinstated public sector successor rights partly because the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association found that the former Mike Harris government's elimination of successor rights for public employees was inconsistent with ILO principles.
The Saskatchewan government's seeming decision to disregard ILO standards is particularly audacious. The Supreme Court ruled in June 2007 that Canada is legally obligated to live up to its international commitments under the ILO constitution, and in February the Court of Queen's Bench found the government's Public Service Essential Services Act to be unconstitutional.
The QB justice's decision relied heavily on Canada's obligations in signing ILO convention No. 87. The Saskatchewan Party government's response to the ruling has been to delay its implementation by challenging the finding. Now it is proposing a series of labour reforms that would further flout international labour law.
The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union of Canada will on Tuesday submit its response to the government's labour consultation paper. Instead of sending it to the minister of labour, I will symbolically deliver it to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal because if the government's proposals go forward, this is where we will find ourselves in a few months.
Coles is president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada