Saskatchewan passes a far-reaching bill
by Gregory Beatty
Legislation doesn’t spring from the ground fully formed. There’s all sorts of steps that governments typically take when drafting laws, from gathering public (and private) input to committee hearings, debate in the assembly and whatnot. Even after a bill is passed that’s not necessarily the end of it, as the government sometimes inserts additional provisions later through regulations.
It’s a painstaking process but considering what’s at stake it’s entirely justifiable. Laws governments pass, after all, regulate and shape society in profound ways. So before they’re enacted they need to be vetted thoroughly to ensure they pass legal muster.
Right now in Saskatchewan we’re seeing that process play out with a very important piece of legislation: The Saskatchewan Employment Act. Bill 85 was passed by the Sask. Party government on May 13 despite pleas from the opposition NDP and labour and social-justice groups to postpone passage until the fall so that the many changes the government is proposing to make to the province’s labour environment can be studied further.
“We [recognize] that government has the right to update and improve legislation,” says NDP labour critic David Forbes. “But not in a reckless manner.”
What’s reckless about the Saskatchewan Employment Act? Well, its scope, to begin with. It’s a massive reworking of 12 pieces of legislation (900 pages in total) into one comprehensive bill. The Labour Standards Act, the Trade Union Act, the Occupational Health & Safety Act… it’s all covered in one 200 page document.
Like Forbes, Grain Services Union head Hugh Wagner concedes the government has the right to act.
“I’m not saying that labour laws shouldn’t be reviewed and updated,” says Hughes. “But I don’t think the result of that process should be to swing the pendulum in favour of employers and against organized workers. Nor do I think legislation should be used to take away people’s existing rights.”
It’s a scenario that’s played out in the province before. During the first 20 years of CCF/NDP rule from 1944-64, a number of progressive measures were introduced to advance the cause of labour.
When the Liberals were in power in the late 1960s, and the Tories formed government in the ’80s, attempts were made to roll back some of the gains.
Now, it’s the Sask. Party’s turn to have a kick at the can.
The point is often made that most things that we take for granted in the workplace today, like the eight-hour day, 40-hour work week, overtime and other measures occurred through labour activism. The new SEA does contain some progressive measures in areas like occupational safety, maternity leave, minimum wage and others. But there are many other provisions that critics argue appear designed to weaken organized labour and erode the rights of workers in general.
With Saskatchewan enjoying the fruits of a surging economy and growing population, Forbes fears blind ideology is trumping common sense with Bill 85.
“The point is well made that this is how Saskatchewan got to where it is today, with the labour laws we already have in place,” he says.
Wagner does credit Labour Minister Don Morgan for setting up an advisory committee to troubleshoot the bill.
“We’ve been able to identify areas of concern and shortcomings, at least from our perspective, and have engaged in dialogue with the minister and the employer representatives.”
“We’ve worked [in committee] to amend and improve Bill 85 to ensure that people’s labour standards rights are protected, things like hours of work and right to pay for overtime,” says Forbes. “But not all the issues were dealt with, so they’re outstanding.”
That’s another area where the government is vulnerable to accusations of recklessness. Many details, including a whole section devoted to essential services, are going to be spelled out down the road in regulations.
“I’m pleased that the minister has indicated that while the bill may be passed in the legislature it won’t become law until the regulations are developed,” says Wagner. “There is a lot of work to do there, and he’s asked the advisory committee to stay on and participate in that.”
One area of concern for Wagner relates to the changed definition of who is an employee for the purposes of collective bargaining. In Bill 85, employees who work in supervisory positions or have access to confidential information are declared out of scope.
“The criteria for excluding someone from being able to be represented by a union and therefore associate with their co-workers for collective bargaining purposes has been expanded way beyond anything previously established in Canada,” says Wagner.
Another problematic provision gives employers the right to essentially appoint a union to represent its employees, says Wagner.
“Voluntary recognition is a strange addition where an employer and a union or other association could establish a relationship without every consulting the workers the union is supposed to represent,” he says.
“Over 97 per cent of collective agreements are renewed without a dispute,” Wagner notes. “So what problem is [Bill 85] fixing? I would say none. Will it create its own problems? I would say yes. So we’re hard-pressed to see how any of these developments takes us toward a more predictable and stable labour relations environment.”
The end result, critics assert, will be more agitation in the workplace, more complaints lodged with the Labour Relations Board and ultimately, more court challenges arguing that workers’ constitutional rights are being violated along the lines of the current essential services dispute which seems destined to reach the Supreme Court.
Further, some — like University of Toronto labour professor David Doorey on Fairwork Saskatchewan’s website (www.fairwork.ca) — argue that the last thing the government should be doing is injecting uncertainty into the workplace when we’re trying to entice skilled workers from across Canada and around the world to move here.
Ultimately, Wagner says it’s impossible to see Bill 85 outside of the broader neo-liberal push to shift society to a market-based model that puts private interests over public interests.
“Across the country we’re seeing a pretty concerted attack on the right to organize being led by a variety of interest groups. It’s kind of baffling in that they fail to show how this is going to create a better, more inclusive democratic society or how the distribution of wealth that’s created is going to be more equitable. If anything, it seems to be a power grab to match the money grab.”
The government has said Bill 85 champions principles like freedom, flexibility and (in the case of stringent union reporting requirements) accountability. For skilled workers who are in high demand, that argument might make sense.
But many workers stuck in low-wage, low-skill job ghettoes face a different reality.
“While they have given us amendments that may address some of the issues, we still see fundamental problems in dealing with some of the priorities that should be happening in Saskatchewan workplaces related to vulnerable workers, occupational health and safety and other things,” says Forbes.
“We don’t agree with the priorities of the government.”