If the turnout and content of a meeting at Yorkton's Legion Hall Monday night is any indication, the provincial NDP, unions and many workers are deeply concerned about the Saskatchewan government's review of labour laws.
In his opening remarks to a largely union crowd, Saskatoon Centre NDP MLA David Forbes called the government's consultation paper on the subject "fear-mongering" and said, while the opposition does not object to a review of labour legislation, the Sask Party was going about it the wrong way.
Literature distributed at the meeting contained headlines such as, "Your workplace rights are up for grabs." Forbes said that is not just rhetoric, that the fear is real and justified.
"This government has done some shocking things in the past," he said. "We just have to look at the spring where they [added] three new MLAs, they didn't talk about that in the election and killing the film industry, really, they didn't talk about that. So, we have really come to be quite nervous about this government."
That nervousness comes largely from some of the questions the government is asking in the discussion paper entitled A Consultation Paper on the Renewal of
Labour Legislation in Saskatchewan. Some of the most contentious are: Should there be limits on hours of work?; Should Vacation time for Saskatchewan workers be reduced? and; Should we lose the right to have employers collect dues on behalf of union members?
The question that raised the most ire was: Should employers be able to pay disabled workers wages lower than the minimum wage? One attendee said he was "incensed" by the question while one of the women said it was "shameful."
Greg Ottenbreit, the Saskatchewan Party MLA for Yorkton, said he was unable to attend the meeting personally due to a previous commitment to local school boards, but defended the discussion paper questions on Tuesday morning.
"Basically, we just want as honest and comprehensive information as possible," he said. "A lot of questions came from the public. The questions have been crafted around concerns that have been raised before. They are not coming from government per se."
Forbes doesn't trust that kind of answers fear that existing workers' rights could lost through the process.
"We know the government has said, "Oh, they're really not on the table," but then we ask, "Why are you asking."
Another major point of contention was the time period allotted to consultation.
"Workers have fought, bled and died for [fundamental rights and protections] and I'll be damned of I'm going to let the Sask Party take them away in 90 days," said Bryn Burgess, representing the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGEU).
Ottenbreit said the timeframe is really closer to a year.
"Really, it's not 90 days," he said. "This started a number of months ago and it will be debated throughout the next [legislative] session as well. It's ample time for people to get their information in."
The information from the Yorkton meeting, along with comments gathered from eight other stops on the Official Opposition Labour Review Consultation Tour will be presented to the government when the legislature reconvenes in October.
Wendy Sol, representing the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) called on the government to not only protect existing rights, but to make Saskatchewan a leader in labour legislation. Among her proposals: raise minimum wage to poverty line and tie it to the cost-of living index; become first North American jurisdiction to implement a 35-hour work week; entrench pay equity for women and; allow workers to refuse work after 40 hours.
Aaron Nagy made an impassioned plea in support of Forbes' private member's bill requiring that "all gas station, convenience store and other retail store workers working overnight need some form of protection either via a fellow co-worker or protective barrier."
Forbes introduced Bill 601, An Act to amend The Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1993, (The Jimmy's Law Act) in response to the murder of Jimmy Wiebe in June 2011. Wiebe, a good friend of Nagy, was shot in the head by a robber while working overnight in a gas station in Yorkton.
The deadline for submissions was July 31, but the NDP is determined to get the results of its tour in front of the government.