Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Employment & Labour Legislation Submission

Plenty of others will be chiming in today on the future of employment and labour law in Saskatchewan; here's my personal contribution.

Many other voices have expressed concerns about the limited amount of actual consultation provided through the within process. My intention is not to merely echo those concerns (however valid), but to take at face value the prospect of improvement to Saskatchewan’s employment and labour legislation.

The same factors which necessitated the passage of labour standards legislation in the 20th century are no less applicable today. Work remains one of the fundamental elements of the lives of most citizens, based on both the income it provides and the social bonds developed in the workplace.

Workers have a strong interest in being able to progress from an entry-level job into a long-term career involving professional and personal development. And the uncertainty of employment markets can be expected to lead to some risk aversion, as workers prefer to maintain a current position rather than changing employers more than necessary.

But at the same time as workers prioritize personal stability and growth, many employers appear inclined to favour disposable labour. This tendency has been assisted by immigration policies expressly intended to facilitate the performance of work by temporary workers whose immigration status is tied solely to the whims of an employer. And so a stark power imbalance remains between employers pushing for the maximum advantage from workers and governments alike, and workers who may see stable employment as an integral part of a full life.

Ideally, the continued imbalance between workers and employers could be reduced substantially through an improved system of social support.

A guaranteed annual income would ensure that workers have some alternative to remaining with a current employer - encouraging workers to pursue options including alternative employment, education or entrepreneurship rather than considering themselves bound to cling to a single job in order to maintain a reasonable standard of living. In addition, improved income security would facilitate the investigation of employer violations of workplace standards, as the cost of potential employer retaliation would be far less severe to a worker deciding whether or not to report problems at a place of employment before they reach the level of a severe injury or death which attracts outside attention.

Absent the implementation of a more thorough social safety net, the next best option would be to strengthen protections for Saskatchewan workers within a statutory framework no less comprehensive than the present one.

Among other options, this could include:
- a minimum wage set at a level sufficient to ensure that no full-time worker in Saskatchewan lives in poverty, and indexed to real costs of living (with some continued monitoring to ensure the level remains adequate);
- protections for workers based on the exercise of the rights listed in sections 4-8 of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, in contrast to the current statutory protection which is limited to employer discrimination based on prohibited grounds;
- closing loopholes in the present legislation, including by reducing the list of employees excluded from the scope of the Labour Standards Act; and
- reinstating "card check" certification as a genuinely efficient and fair means of providing for representation in workplaces under circumstances where a certification vote is neither necessary nor efficient.

Unfortunately, many of the measures proposed in the Consultation Paper represent a step in precisely the wrong direction. Indeed, the focus on rewriting existing labour standards to accommodate practices which may currently be illegal sends a strong signal that the primary purpose of the consultation exercise is to further undermine workplace protections.

In particular, any excuse for employers to pay less than the general minimum wage based on age and disability will both devalue the work performed by the affected workers, and push down wages across multiple categories of workers. Likewise, an enforceable right to contractually require workers to work otherwise-prohibited overtime hours would substantially negate any work-life balance for precisely the workers who are most vulnerable. And a labour relations system which imposes disclosure requirements on unions which are not paralled among employers, which allows employers to refuse to submit union dues to a duly certified bargaining agent, or which allows an employer to choose the bargaining agent certified to speak for its workers as a matter of convenience, would plainly accomplish little other than to shift yet more workplace power into the hands of employers at the expense of Saskatchewan workers.

In closing, the development of a system of employment and labour legislation (with underlying social supports) should indeed be considered a work in progress. I trust that upon hearing from affected workers, this government will reverse its intentions to try to undermine the progress made to date.

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