The Saskatchewan government recently introduced a new employment act, a 184-page document that rolls 12 employment-related acts into one.
It makes a number of significant changes, many of which are welcomed by both organized labour and business leaders. But both sides say there are still a number of outstanding, bigger picture issues that need to be resolved before the bill becomes law next year.
The province’s minimum wage will now be indexed based on a formula that gives equal weight to the annual change in average hourly wage and the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
Tom Graham, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the province’s largest trade union representing 22,000 public sector workers, says it’s a “step in the right direction,” but the minimum wage, currently $10 an hour, is still too low.
“If you’re at the bottom of the pay scale, two per cent means a lot,” Graham says.
He also praises the inclusion of leaves for organ donation and citizenship ceremonies, as well as several changes around collective bargaining.
The notice period increases to a period of 60 to 120 days before the expiration of a collective agreement, from the previous 30 to 60 days.
“We would view that as somewhat positive and inspiring to get employers to the bargaining table sooner,” Graham says.
But there are sections that concern him, including the requirement for unions to provide audited financial statements to their members annually and to disclose the results of all votes to their members.
“We have many small locals where there are only maybe five to 10 members. They only collect a small amount in dues. Maybe there should be a threshold on that,” he says, adding that this information is already available to members on request.
The union is also troubled by new language that stipulates anyone who was a member of the union at the time of notice is eligible to vote — even if they have quit, retired or moved into management by the time ballots are cast.
“We can’t figure out why that would be,” Graham says. “To me, that’s interfering with the operation of an organization.”
He’s also disappointed with the inclusion of the definition of “supervisory employee” that would restrict supervisors from belonging to the same bargaining unit as those they supervise. He accuses the province of including this provision to shrink union membership.
Graham also has mixed feelings about a provision that allows employers to assign 10-hour shifts without a permit, something he says could be detrimental to parents who require childcare. He’s also hoping to see more details on a provision that allows overtime banking.
“Is it a choice? Can people take it as cash? When will the time be taken off? Or is it just about avoiding paying overtime?” he says. “The devil’s in the details.”
Business owners optimistic
Business owners are encouraged by the new act, says Marilyn Braun-Pollon, vice-president, Prairie and Agri-business, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), though they also have some concerns they hope to address before the bill becomes law.
On the whole, the act is a “step in the right direction” because it gives employers the flexibility they need, including the previously mentioned time bank and 10-hour workdays, she says. However, employers are disappointed they will still require permits for longer work periods without a day of rest, she adds.
“When you look at businesses in remote locations, restricting the ability to do that with a permitting system is a bit short-sighted,” she says, adding some of the biggest gains for the business community are in the area of labour relations.
Along with the requirement for audited statements, she is also pleased to see the continuation of secret ballot votes, the clarification of the definitions of “technological change” and “organizational change” and the expanded ability to decertify unions.
A new provision that also bars unions from fining or filing lawsuits against union members who cross picket lines puts Saskatchewan in line with other provinces, she adds, as will the ability for all employees to be allowed to vote on a final offer — not only those on the picket line.
However, the CFIB plans to lobby for a change to the minimum wage indexing provision which, according to Braun-Pollon, will hurt the province’s business owners. It “assumes affordability and doesn’t reflect the current economy,” she says.
“The best way to help low-income earners is to allow them to keep more of their income through the tax system,” she says. “This will increase the cost of doing business and there’s a ripple effect that will have unintended consequences.”
The CFIB hopes to reverse this decision or, at a minimum, see a gratuity or training wage introduced in certain sectors as British Columbia and Alberta have done.
While the new act does remove some levels of government involvement, Braun-Pollon says it doesn’t go far enough in other areas.
The CFIB will continue to push for two provisions it recommended during the consultation process: a “right to choose” provision that would allow workers to opt out of paying union dues, and the requirement for employees to give notice before leaving their job.
“Overall, they hit a lot of marks but we would have liked them to go an extra step since they’re opening the act,” she says.
Danielle Harder is a freelance writer based in Brooklin, Ont.
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