Back-to-recruitment legislation (editorial)

Apparently the premiers of Nova Scotia and British Columbia haven’t been reading Canadian HR Reporter’s articles on the critical nursing shortage facing health systems across the country. How else can you explain their use of back-to-work legislation that has so infuriated nurses that Alberta (where nurses were big winners in contract talks this year) and Texas (big winners in nursing recruitment every year) can soon expect spikes in staffing levels?

Back-to-work legislation has a place in a democracy — there are times when the public good must take precedence over collective bargaining — but of late Canadian governments have been too quick to replace hard negotiations with easy-to-write legislation. The effect has been years of labour strife, and professions such as nursing and teaching have become clearly embedded in the minds of Canadians as high-stress occupations with disgruntled workforces. Not the type of career one is apt to choose, nor to stick around in. This of course is no news to HR professionals seeking to employ these people.

As John Butler reports on Page 9 of the July 16, 2001 edition of CHRR, retention is topping the list of concerns for health administrators. Hospitals are so desperate for staff they’re even raiding the Third World for nurses.

Every provincial health ministry is designing and implementing strategies to attract the nurses so desperately needed. With nurses retiring and burning out, and newcomers warded off the profession, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions says the country is facing a shortage of about 20,000 nurses, with the number expected to reach 113,000 by 2011.

This is of course a dilemma of our own making. Canadian governments spent the 1990s chopping health budgets and forcing hospitals to lay off large segments of their nursing contingents. The nurses who survived cost-cutting were then given overly demanding workloads, driving more people out of the profession. But now, we’ve decided we need them back. Unfortunately, after a decade of punishing the profession with layoffs and demanding workloads, not a lot of people are answering the call.

With all this effort going into recruitment and retention, provinces using back-to-work legislation in response to labour unrest in a justifiably fed-up workforce are being incredibly short-sighted.

Is all this strife really necessary? Perhaps not. As Laura Cassiani reports in the cover story of the July 16, 2001 edition of CHRR, an advisory committee on labour relations in the federal government believes it’s time for government to end its reliance on back-to-work legislation to settle disputes. The committee’s report recommends the creation of a disputes resolution format for the federal government and its unions. Ottawa should give serious consideration to the report, and the provinces and territories should have a look at it for both their own workforces and the broader public sector.

Maybe it’s time for government accountants to move over and give HR a chance at this labour negotiation business.

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