Thursday, April 18, 2013

Saskatchewan prepares to gut labour laws with Bill 85

By Lori Theresa Waller
April 18, 2013

Saskatchewan is about to dramatically overhaul its labour legislation, transforming it from one of the most progressive jurisdictions in Canada in terms of worker protection to one of the most regressive. You wouldn't know it, though, from reading mainstream news coverage.

The national media's near-total silence on the soon-to-be adopted Saskatchewan Employment Act, now being sped through the legislature as Bill 85 by the ruling Saskatchewan Party, is a bit puzzling given the unprecedented nature of many of the bill's reforms.

One exception was an article published last week by the Huffington Post [8] that focused on what the law will mean for unionized workers. The impact on those workers will, undoubtedly, be dramatic.

For instance, a new rule barring employees with any supervisory duties (including assigning or scheduling work or giving performance feedback) from belonging to the same bargaining unit as the people they "supervise" -- unless the employer and union agree to keep them in the same unit -- means employers will be able to push many workers out of their current units, potentially costing them years of seniority and other entitlements.

Removing workers from unions

Workers whose job duties include "activities of a confidential nature in matters relating to ... labour relations, business strategic planning, policy advice [or] budget implementation or planning" will no longer meet the legal definition of an employee, and therefore be locked out of being able to belong to a union at all.

"In their consultation document, [the government] mused about getting rid of the Rand formula, or automatic dues check-off for unionized workplaces," says Bob Byomen, president of the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union. "What they're doing is, they're skirting that, because they know they can't win that challenge. Instead, they're just taking groups of employees and removing them from the union automatically."

He estimates that roughly 30 per cent of his union's current membership will be excluded under the new law.

The list of other measures in Bill 85 that unions say will disadvantage them is long and provocative: allowing employers to voluntarily recognize a union without proof that the majority of workers want that union to represent them; financial audit and reporting requirements that could saddle small union locals with hefty costs; regulatory hurdles that force unions to delay starting strike action by at least 14 days and possibly far longer; and more.

Weakening protections for all workers

But to paint Bill 85 simply as a regressive overhaul of just unionized labour relations would be a mistake. Just as troubling -- if not more -- is the way it backtracks on several basic protections for workers across the board.

Workers' rights to reasonable work hours, overtime pay, meal breaks and weekends off will all be weakened. Under current law, employers have to give one week's notice of schedule changes, limit a worker's hours to no more than 44 in a week, and provide lunch breaks under all but emergency circumstances -- defined as those that "could not, by the exercise of reasonable judgment, have been foreseen by the employer." Under the new law, circumstances that are merely "unexpected or unusual" will exempt employers from meeting those standards.

Employers will be able to unilaterally impose a 10-hour-per-day, 4-day workweek on employees, whether the employees want it or not. (Under current law, the employer has to first get written authorization from the Ministry of Labour to impose a 10-hour/4-day work week.)

Then there is the weekend. Right now, all workplaces with 10 or more employees have to give two consecutive days off to employees who work 20 hours a week or more. The new act only requires two consecutive days off for certain categories of workers to be named by the government, in particular workplaces to be named by the government.

Perhaps most alarming for non-unionized workers are changes to workplace health and safety rules that open them up to being fined for violations. Individual workers will be subject to fines of up to $500,000.

"We all know that unsafe staffing levels lead to higher injury rates," the Service Employees' International Union points out in its online campaign against Bill 85 [9]. "This scheme shifts the responsibility for safety, and the fines, to those who have no control over staffing levels ... is it fair to make the workers pay for employer decisions?"

Given the precedents Saskatchewan's new labour law could set for other provinces (the leader of Ontario's opposition Conservative Party reportedly loves it), those types of questions should be getting far more attention and debate in media outlets across the country.

The time window for that debate is rapidly closing, in Saskatchewan at least. The government, which enjoys a comfortable majority in the legislature, is dead set on passing Bill 85 before the end of the spring session, in less than a month.

Lori Theresa Waller is's labour reporter. For more news from picket lines and workplaces around the world, see her weekly round-up of the top labour stories.

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