Saskatchewan's Bill 85 will be bad for workers' health

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Is the proposed new Saskatchewan Employment Act an example of false economy or an attack on the health of non-union workers across the province? Probably both.

If health outcomes are the way we measure the likely impact of work time and scheduling changes then Bill 85 will be an abject failure since it will compromise many people's health.

If employers think they will save money from the "flexibility" Bill 85 imposes on non-union workers most will learn that the resulting ill health will cost them far more.

Replacing 12 statutes with a single "labour code," Bill 85 undermines the eight-hour workday, which was won to end the grueling schedules many workers faced in the late 19th century. The new Employment Act allows employers to switch to a ten-hour workday without acquiring a permit. If employers don't schedule more than four ten-hour shifts in a week, they won't have to pay overtime.

Expected to be tabled during the current sitting of the legislature, Bill 85 also weakens employees' right to refuse overtime in excess of 44 hours per week. The new Employment Act also increases employers' ability to bank overtime, which could undermine current time and a half pay provisions.

The result? People's quality of life and health will be harmed if they are forced to work longer. Working long hours is linked with increased depression, heart disease and countless other illnesses. "Why Working More Than 8 Hours A Day Can Kill You" is how a September Forbes magazine headline summarized a growing body of research on the topic.

Workplace safety will also be compromised by longer hours and the fatigue that accompanies it. In addition, Bill 85 may contribute to making workplaces unsafe in another way.

It further enables employers to eliminate unpaid meal breaks if they allow employees to eat while working. But research suggests that regular breaks reduce workplace injuries, particularly the repetitive strain variety. Workplace injury rates are already higher in Saskatchewan than most of the country and having employers work long uninterrupted periods flies in the face of the government’s stated desire to reduce these injuries.

Unless things change, under the new Employment Act, 14 year-old youths could work 10-hour days without a meal break. As the school year winds down and many students start seeking summer employment, it is worth reflecting on the consequences this might have on their health and development.

In their bid to grant employers ever more scheduling flexibility, the Saskatchewan Party is also set to eliminate weekends for many workers. Under the current rules, employers are supposed to provide two consecutive days off per week, includingSunday wherever possible.

Beyond making more people work on weekends, Bill 85 gives employers greater flexibility to schedule work on statutory holidays. While replacing an employee's public holiday with another day off may appear reasonable, it actually undermines one important objective of these holidays. Ensuring that as many people as possible have time off at the same time, public holidays give busy people time to strengthen family and friendship bonds. These ties are an important factor in a healthy society.

The work time and scheduling changes proposed by the Saskatchewan Party are unnecessary. Current regulations allow some services to operate on holidays and employers can seek permits for various flexible work schedules.

In a major step in the wrong direction, these changes will increase the pressure on people to work longer and give them less control over their family and social time. The health of the province will suffer and many people, including employers, will pay the price.


Dave Coles is the National President of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP).

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