Saskatchewan unveils new employment act

Act is ‘step in the right direction,’ but minimum wage still too low: Union
By Danielle Harder
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/29/2013

The Saskatchewan government has introduced a new employment act that rolls 12 employment-related acts into one.

Bill 85, the Saskatchewan Employment Act, passed first reading on Dec. 4. It proposes a number of significant changes, many of which are welcomed by both organized labour and business leaders. But both sides say there are bigger picture issues that need to be resolved before the bill becomes law.

The province’s minimum wage would 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).

It’s a step in the right direction but the minimum wage, currently $10 per hour, is still too low, says Tom Graham, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the province’s largest trade union representing 22,000 public sector workers.

He also praises the legislation’s inclusion of leaves for organ donation and to attend citizenship ceremonies, as well as changes around collective bargaining.

The notice period to start bargaining would increase 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,” says Graham.

But there are sections that concern him, including the requirement for unions to provide audited financial statements to members annually and to disclose the results of all votes to 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,” says Graham, adding 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,” says Graham. “To me, that’s interfering with the operation of an organization.”

But business owners are encouraged by the new act, says Marilyn Braun-Pollon, vice-president of Prairie and agri-business at the Ottawa-based 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 welcomed because it gives employers flexibility, including time banks for overtime hours and 10-hour workdays, she says. However, employers are disappointed they would still require permits for longer work periods without a day of rest, says Braun-Pollon.

“When you look at businesses in remote locations, restricting the ability to do that with a permitting system is a bit short-sighted.”

Some of the biggest gains for the business community are in the area of labour relations. Along with the requirement for audited statements, Braun-Pollon says she is pleased to see the continuation of secret ballot votes, 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 says, 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, says Braun-Pollon.

“This will increase the cost of doing business and there’s a ripple effect that will have unintended consequences.”

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 jobs.

Danielle Harder is a Brooklin, Ont.-based freelance writer. This article originally appeared in Canadian Labour Reporter. For more information, visit www.labour-reporter.com.

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