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The changes to proposed labour legislation in the new Saskatchewan Employment Act aren't as bad as they could have been, but they still represent a step backwards for workers' rights. And one of the reforms unveiled last week is a particularly mean-spirited attack against some of the most vulnerable workers.
In May the Saskatchewan government released a consultation paper that included a slew of proposals that would have contravened International Labour Organization and Supreme Court decisions. Fortunately, the government listened to the labour movement's protests and dismissed the more extreme suggestions. Still, most of the changes in the proposed legislation weaken workers' rights.
One change allows for decertification of a union outside the 30-60 day annual window while another excludes employees with some supervisory duties from being part of the same bargaining unit and yet another allows employers to switch to a ten-hour, four-day, workweek without acquiring a permit.
In what may be the most regressive element of the new Employment Act the government has eliminated successor rights for cafeteria, janitorial and security employees in government-owned buildings. This specifically targets some of the most vulnerable workers in society.
Successor rights allow employees to keep their jobs as well as their union, collective agreement, wages, seniority and benefits when a new contractor takes over their work. By removing these rights only for cafeteria, janitorial and security staff the Saskatchewan Party is telling workers in these fields that they don’t even deserve the relatively meager wage they currently receive.
With the current rules, unionized cleaners, security and food service staff in public institutions usually make $12-17 an hour and receive some benefits. The effect of eliminating their existing certification orders and collective bargaining agreements will be to drive down food, cleaning and security workers' salaries and benefits.
If the bidding process for these services is simply about who offers the cheapest service, contractors that pay their employees decent wages cannot compete with nonunion cleaning and food service firms, which generally pay their employees little more than the minimum wage (and sometimes less).
Union jobs in food, security and cleaning services provide individuals, especially racialized women who often didn't get to attend university, with a wage that allows their children to pursue greater opportunities. Decent pay in so-called "unskilled" sectors has a broader social importance as well. It lessens inequality and growing scientific evidence -- in fields ranging from health to criminology -- hows that inequality imposes costs on all parts of society. The best-selling book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone deals with the issue in detail.
Driving down janitorial, security and food service workers wages, which will lead to a more transient workforce, may also compromise service. Evidence from England suggests that slashing hospital cleaners pay lowers cleaning standards and an increased incidence of hospital acquired infections.
Elsewhere they've come to realize that eliminating public sector successorship rights is both unfair and bad policy. In January 2007 Ontario re-established successor rights for Crown employees a decade after Premier Mike Harris stripped public workers of these rights.
One reason Ontario reversed course on public sector successor rights was that the province was embarrassed by the International Labour Organization. The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association raised serious concerns that the elimination of successorship rights for public employees was inconsistent with ILO principles. The ILO criticized a similar move in British Columbia and when a new government is elected there they will hopefully make the necessary changes.
Saskatchewan Labour Minister Don Morgan has said the government is still open to amending the Employment Act before the Legislature votes on it in March. If Morgan doesn't want to be seen as a mean spirited bully that picks on the weakest workers he'll make the needed changes to allow cleaning, security and food service workers a chance for a decent wage.
Dave Coles is President of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.
Photo: John Maclennan