05/13/2013 04:29 EDT | Updated 07/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Saskatchewan Omnibus Labour Law Has 'Hundreds Of Problems,' Critics Assert


REGINA - The Saskatchewan government has passed a labour act melding 12 pieces of legislation into one omnibus law that allows for more flexible work hours, shortens the qualifying time for parental leave and ensures disabled people can't be paid less than minimum wage.

But the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour says it's rife with loose ends, waters down current labour standards and undermines bargaining rights.

The new Saskatchewan Employment Act allows for people to work either five eight-hour days a week or four 10-hour days a week, lowers the qualifying period for maternity, parental and adoption leave to 13 weeks from 20 weeks and says people with disabilities can't be paid a lower minimum wage.

"The significant thing for people that are working is the consolidation of all the pieces of legislation into one," said Labour Minister Don Morgan.

"We've heard from some of the other provinces that are saying this may be a thing that may make the piece easier for workers to look through. The thing that I'd say to workers right now is let's put the rhetoric down and let's work on the regulations and get people to have an understanding of what's there."

The new act will also have regulations to index the minimum wage — meaning it will be adjusted to the cost of living.

It also allows employees to take unpaid leave to care for a critically ill child or if a child has died because of crime.

Federation president Larry Hubich said the government "plowed ahead with this flawed legislation."

"There's hundreds of problems with the legislation," said Hubich. "There are literally hundreds of loose ends that have not been tied up. There are a whole host of things — and I know the government made a few modest amendments and so I think that was good that they made those modest amendments — but they've barely scratched the surface."

For example, Hubich said it's good that the government has narrowed the definition of a supervisor. But he said the government has also removed a provision that allowed unions and employers to agree on the scope of jobs.

"So on the one hand, they fix it a little bit and then on the other hand they make it worse," said Hubich.

On the labour relations front, the legislation would enshrine a 14-day cooling-off period before a strike or lockout could happen in the event of contract talks breaking down.

Unions could still fine members who crossed picket lines, but they'd have to get a court order to collect.

Essential services legislation, which spells out which workers are so needed that they cannot strike, is not yet included in the act.

The legislation, passed in May 2008, has been the subject of a court challenge.

Union lawyers argued the law violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by forcing some employees to stay on the job. Unions were also outraged because the law stated that if the two sides can't agree, employers can dictate who is essential.

A Court of Queen's Bench judge ruled in February 2012 that the law was unconstitutional.

However, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal ruled on April 26 that the right to walk off the job is not protected by the charter — meaning the legislation is valid.

The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour was given 60 days to decide if it will ask the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Morgan said essential services will be added to the Saskatchewan Employment Act in the fall after the government has a chance to talk to labour groups.

"We think we've had good consultation on the rest of the bill. We want to work through the essential services and have consultation with the groups that are providing the essential services ... to ensure that we have something that is effective and works well in the workplace," said Morgan.

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