03/01/2012 05:20 EST | Updated 05/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Human rights layoffs in Saskatchewan called reckless, but commission defends

SASKATOON - Saskatchewan's largest union is calling for an independent review of the province's human rights commission.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees said Thursday that a decision to lay off six commission workers in January was "reckless."

"If you are harassed at work due to race, or fired because you are pregnant, you will have a tough time getting assistance from the commission," CUPE Saskatchewan president Tom Graham told delegates at the union's annual convention in Saskatoon.

"We need an independent review to shine a light on what is going on there."

The union said the workers were laid off Jan. 25, escorted out the back door and not allowed to return to their desks or say goodbye to co-workers. CUPE said several of the workers had more than 20 years experience working for the commission.

"It's a disgraceful way for any employer to treat its staff, but it is reprehensible when that employer is the human rights commission," said Graham.

CUPE said it will press the case for an independent review when the legislature convenes. The spring session of the legislature starts Monday.

But chief commissioner David Arnot said Thursday that the union's comments are unfair.

Arnot said it's common practice in many businesses to escort employees out of the building when they've been let go.

He said the commission negotiated settlements for the workers with the union and four of the workers were given the option of "bumping" colleagues, but opted not to do that.

Arnot said the commission is moving in a new direction following changes to legislation passed in spring 2011. The legislation eliminated the human rights tribunal in favour of sending disputes to court if necessary and placed an emphasis on mediating complaints instead.

"These departures are regrettable, there's no doubt about that. But they're necessary," said Arnot.

"The people were very professional in the work they did, but we need to refocus, restructure and promote a different direction. Primarily we were focused on a litigation model and we want to move in more of a collaborative, a problem-solving model.

"And we need people with that kind of skill set and that's what we've done."

Arnot also said the commission is "quite likely" to hire more than six people to work under the new model when its next fiscal year starts in April.