Working conditions are an important social determinant of health because of the great amount of time we spend in our workplaces. People who are already most vulnerable to poor health outcomes due to their lower income and education are also the ones most likely to experience adverse working conditions.
– Juha Mikkonen and Dennis Raphael, Social Determinants of Health: The Canadian Facts
Unions are on the frontline of democracy, the most tangible example of citizens using their collective power to work for a better society. When the labour movement is strong, we all do better. When the labour movement is under attack and losing ground, everyone is at risk. A healthy society depends on a healthy labour movement.
The importance of a healthy workplace to building a healthy society cannot be overstated. Meaningful employment is fundamental to a person’s self worth, dignity, and participation in society. International law recognizes a universal right to meaningful work, in conditions freely chosen by the worker, while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees workers’ rights to associate with others by joining a union and bargaining collectively with their employers.
Yet too often, our workplaces aren’t working for us; we hear over and over again that dysfunctional workplaces are making people sick. Meanwhile, Saskatchewan’s labour policy framework is increasingly being shaped by a narrow focus on the demands of industry and partisan political players, rather than balancing these with a concern for the health of workers, families, and communities.
The solution is simple. When workers have a greater say in setting the terms and conditions of employment, they report higher levels of job satisfaction and fewer work-related health issues. Ensuring a level playing field for workers through strong labour laws and protection for collective bargaining rights will lead to a more innovative, more competitive and more resilient economy, and a more democratic and prosperous Saskatchewan.
Labour and the NDP: Partners for a healthy future
The NDP and the union movement have a shared history, and we share present challenges, too. Both have been a part of winning important advances for society, often by joining forces to do so. Both are also facing a difficult time, with powerful interests working to divide us – from one another and from our overlapping democratic base. Increasingly, workers greet both unions and the NDP with the question, What have you done for us lately?
We have our work cut out for us, and it has to be groundwork. The NDP must reconnect with the social movements that are at its roots; the labour movement needs to reinvigorate the rank and file that is its strength.
This is work we can and must do side-by-side. And it’s best done, not by retreating, but by advancing. A great analogy for this is the fight for Medicare: so long as we simply seek to defend what we have, continued erosion is unavoidable. We need to be proposing new gains, expanding and improving our universal coverage to show people how much better a public system can be for everyone.
The same is true for the labour movement. Yes, we need to fight against changes that erode the existing rights of workers. But we also need to talk about what we can do to advance, to innovate, to promote truly healthy workplaces: be it pay equity, indexing minimum wage to ensure it provides a living wage, introducing better protections for migrant workers, or expanding on the education, outreach and social justice work that unions already do.
Meaningful consultation: A precondition to real change
Real change starts with real communication. While we must be open to new ideas and bold innovations, we also firmly believe that any significant redesign of Saskatchewan’s labour policy must include, as a first step, a meaningful consultation with all parties.
Workable solutions to perennial problems are crafted not behind closed doors, but with the active input of the people most impacted by them. With a focus on meaningful consultation with workers, What have we done for you lately? becomes What can we do together?
To frame this discussion, I propose three broad policy principles that could serve as a starting point for a meaningful conversation about the future of work in our province.
Three steps to healthy employment
1. Promoting healthy workplaces by expanding access to collective bargaining.
We need to change the way we think about collective bargaining. Collective bargaining offers substantial benefits not only to employees, but to employers as well, by providing an efficient and fair process to settle workplace disputes with minimal disruptions to business. A stable workforce made up of engaged, healthy employees is good for business. It is possible to promote collective bargaining in a way that works fairly and that balances the interests of both workers and employers.
Our current system is not perfect. A lot of workers are not able to participate in collective bargaining under the current Trade Union Act. That’s something we can improve. Together with our partners in labour, business and the community, I want to look at innovative means to remove barriers for workers who wish to organize for improvements in their workplace.
Collective bargaining is the primary vehicle through which employees are empowered to participate in decision-making in the workplace, but it is not the only one. Joint worker-management committees, like those established under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, can give workers a powerful voice in developing and enforcing rules in their workplaces. Unfortunately, effective joint employee-management decision-making is not common. Workplace democracy cannot be achieved without a minimum level of legislative protection.
We can and should expand on the work of the NDP’s Your Work, Your Say consultations, engaging employers, business, organized labour, unrepresented workers, and other stakeholders in a robust, meaningful consultation process to set a new agenda for Saskatchewan labour policy.
These solutions may include:
- Repealing legislative changes that have made it harder for workers who want to join unions, such as the restoration of automatic card-based certification;
- Seeking means to bring Saskatchewan in line with international law by extending access to collective bargaining to all workers;
- Increasing access to mediation and arbitration to enable both public and private sector employers and unions to promote harmony and resolve disputes; and
- Overhauling the appointment process for the Labour Relations Board to ensure that decision-makers have the full confidence of all parties involved.
2. Promoting healthy communities by removing barriers to employment.
A significant segment of the population is excluded from meaningful paid work, or is only able to secure part-time, casual, or temporary employment – what is called precarious employment. Women, new Canadians, young workers, older workers, differently-abled workers, and workers without formal education face significant barriers to participation in the workplace.
A number of tried-and-true programs have been devised to mitigate these barriers – for example, tax credits and wage subsidy programs that have incentivized hiring students, workers with interactions with the justice system, or differently-abled workers. A province-wide subsidized daycare program in the province of Quebec has significantly reduced barriers to the participation of women in the workplace.
Working with partners in business, labour, and the community, we can and should find and implement evidence-based policies designed to promote broader workplace participation. This may include:
- Partnering with community organizations to design and implement employment experience programs that will help students, differently-abled workers, and other underemployed persons transition to employment;
- Working with First Nations communities, educational and post-secondary institutions, and community partners to develop a First Nations employment strategy that will increase the participation of First Nations workers in Saskatchewan workplaces;
- Helping people receiving social services and assistance to transition into employment by ending clawbacks and providing transitional support such as tuition, retraining, child care and transportation allowances;
- Enacting legislation that will provide all workers with paid sick days and a reasonable number of paid days off for personal emergencies; and
- Creating an affordable provincial childcare and early childhood education strategy.
3. Supporting healthy families through improved work/life balance.
Many workers in Saskatchewan, particularly young families, are clocking significantly longer hours than the traditional 40-hour workweek. Yet, due to staggering rises in the cost of living in Saskatchewan over the last few years, workers have less disposable income, even if they are making more.
When setting employment standards, our decisions should be guided by the decency principle, the idea that no worker should receive a wage that is insufficient to live on, be deprived of payment of wages or benefits to which they are entitled, be subject to coercion, discrimination, indignity or unwarranted danger in the workplace; or be required to work so many hours that he or she is effectively denied a personal or civic life. Decent conditions and consistent employment standards that guarantee employees rest days every week, periodic common holidays, personal emergency days, and adequate vacation time promote healthy communities both within and outside the workplace.
We can and should take steps to extend protections for workers and improve the enforcement of laws that protect employees, including:
- Amending the Labour Standards Act to provide for a true system of pay equity that extends to the private sector and that covers women, First Nations and Métis people, new Canadians, ethnic minorities and youth;
- Reversing changes to the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program and expanding access for skilled workers and their families to join our communities as permanent residents or citizens, not just as temporary workers;
- Ensuring that temporary foreign workers receive fair wages, adequate housing, access to services, and workplace protections;
- Ensuring that no working person lives in poverty by indexing minimum wage to 120% of the Low Income Measure or other appropriate benchmark;
- Extending the protection of the Labour Standards Act, the Worker’s Compensation Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act to all workers;
- Adequately resourcing Labour Standards and Occupational Health and Safety Enforcement Offices; and
- Restoring the protection of human rights in this province by restoring an independent Human Rights Commission and Tribunal.
Workers joining together to organize fair, safe conditions is at the heart of our democracy; it is a key element of the ongoing struggle for equality, freedom and social justice. It’s also an essential element of a stable economy and a healthy society. With that in mind, there’s no question that pulling the rug out from under workers by ignoring their voices in reviewing labour laws, as the Sask Party government is currently doing, is a big step backwards.
A far better approach would be to create the conditions for a new conversation, one that looks to increase equality and fairness alongside prosperity, one that benefits not only employers, but employees and the public interest. That’s the Saskatchewan way, and it’s a better way.
Please share your labour policy ideas below, or review and weigh in on other ideas that have been shared with us here.