Wednesday, March 31, 2010

AEEL Minister Rob Norris brings shame to Saskatchewan by insulting United Nations International Labour Organization

StarPhoenix, Mar. 30, 2010

Advanced Education, Employment and Labour (AEEL) Minister Rob Norris brought shame to Saskatchewan recently when he devalued and dismissed out-of-hand the ruling by a well respected United Nations agency that promotes social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights.

In June 2008, the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), on behalf of the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU/NUPGE), filed a complaint against the Saskatchewan Party government with the International Labour Organization (ILO) alleging that the Public Service Essential Services Act and changes to the Trade Union Act impede workers from exercising their fundamental right to freedom of association by making it more difficult for workers to join unions, engage in free collective bargaining and exercise their right to strike.

A similar complaint was also filed by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) on behalf of more than a dozen other unions in the province.

On March 25, 2010, the ILO, of which Canada is a founding member, issued a decision supporting the unions’ claims and makes six non-binding recommendations for appropriate action by the provincial government.

In its ruling, the ILO said it “expects” the Wall government “will ensure that the provincial authorities hold full and specific consultations with the relevant workers’ and employers’ organizations in the future at an early stage of considering the process of adoption of any legislation in the field of labour law so as to restore the confidence of the parties and truly permit the attainment of mutually acceptable solutions where possible.”

The agency “requests” that the Wall government “ensure that the provincial authorities take the necessary measures, in consultation with the social partners, to amend the Public Service Essential Services Act so as to ensure that the [Labour Relations Board] may examine all aspects relating to the determination of an essential service, in particular, the determination of the sectors in question, classification, number and names of workers who must provide services and act rapidly in the event of a challenge arising in the midst of a broader labour dispute.” The agency “further requests that the Public Service Essential Services Regulations, which sets out a list of prescribed essential services, be amended in consultation with the social partners. It requests the Government to provide information on the measures taken or envisaged in this respect.”

The ILO also wants the province “to amend the Trade Union Act so as to lower the requirement, set at 45 per cent, for the minimum number of employees expressing support for a trade union in order to begin the process of a certification election.”

The Wall government has been instructed to keep the ILO informed of the progress it makes in implementing the recommendations.

The ILO Governing Body approved the recommendations (contained in the 356th Report of the Committee on Freedom of Association) in their entirety at its meeting held March 24, 2010, in Geneva.

The ILO is the only ‘tripartite’ United Nations agency in that it brings together representatives of governments, employers and workers to jointly shape policies and programmes.

On March 29, 2010, the SFL held a press conference at the Delta Regina where labour leaders commented on the ILO ruling.

According to the StarPhoenix, SFL president Larry Hubich said he was “pleasantly surprised” at the depth and strength of the decision.

“It vindicates the position we’ve been advocating. We expect the government will comply with the recommendations and request of the ILO.”

If the government does not comply with the recommendations, Hubich said the SFL has every intention of proceeding with a court case it began filing last year.

“I think responsible governments are governments that pay attention to these international organizations,” said Hubich. [ILO finds province’s labour laws lacking (StarPhoenix, March 30, 2010)]

As for AEEL Minister Rob Norris, it seems he felt the best way to handle the situation was by insulting the ILO and embarrass Saskatchewan with immature comments.

“This is non-binding and certainly I don’t think this is some of the best work from the ILO,” Norris said.

Norris says the recommendations made by the ILO, which was founded in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles and became the first specialized agency of the UN in 1946, “will not force a change in the legislation.”

“The ILO has offered an opinion that’s non-binding,” he said. “The analysis is incomplete. Certainly from where we stand we have every confidence in both our essential services legislation and the amendments to the Trade Union Act.” [Province Will Ignore International Labour Ruling (NewsTalk 650, March 29, 2010)]

Why Norris thinks the ILO analysis is lacking has not been explained.

The ILO report notes that the Wall government made two submissions to the agency in its defense: February 11, 2009, and October 15, 2009.

The Committee on Freedom of Association uses four pages in its report to quote extensively from these communications. In the unions’ case it used six pages. If Norris is looking for someone to blame for his ministry’s failure to sway the ILO with a stronger case he should look in the mirror. From the outset Norris didn’t appear to take the process very seriously.

In June 2008, when the Leader-Post first reported that NUPGE was going to file a complaint against the Wall government with the United Nations, Norris said the government would provide, if asked to do so, a submission to the ILO. But he suggested the matter “is probably not top of mind for activities of that organization.”

“We have every confidence that the labour legislation that’s been passed is constitutional, that it’s fair and balanced and really reflects some of the best practices from across Canada,” Norris said. [Union files complaint against Sask. labour legislation (Leader-Post, June 12, 2008)]

So Norris was prepared to participate, but only if asked to do so. That’s how much stock he put into the process.

On February 5, 2009, the Leader-Post reported that NUPGE were accusing “the provincial government of holding up the process.”

The unions said that “they recently learned the ILO had not received a response from the Saskatchewan government as of early November.”

The newspaper said the Saskatchewan Party government dismissed the union’s argument as a “red herring.”

AEEL Minister Rob Norris said he “challenged the assumption” made by the unions. The province is working as planned with the Government of Canada, which actually makes the submission to the ILO, he said.

“We’re not holding up the work of the ILO,” Norris said. “Our submission is going to go forward in 2009. We said that all the way along.” [ILO ruling still pending (Leader-Post, February 5, 2009)]

The Wall government’s first submission to the ILO was dated February 11, 2009 – six days after the story was published.

It’s interesting that Norris should mention the federal government because in a speech to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce on January 7, 2008, the former Minister of Labour and Minister of the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, spoke highly of the ILO and Canada’s role as a member.

“Through our membership in international organizations and in our bilateral relations with key partner countries, Canada actively works to ensure respect for internationally-recognized labour principles,” Blackburn told the audience.

“It is for this reason that Canada plays a leadership role in the International Labour Organization –the ILO—the UN specialized agency that advances internationally recognized labour rights. The ILO sets international labour standards and promotes decent work globally. It has a structure that is unique in multilateral organizations in that it brings together representatives of government, workers and employers to shape joint policies and programmes. Canadian governments, employer and worker representatives have long played important roles at the ILO.

“Fostering commitment to human rights, freedom, democracy and the rule of law are not only important ends in themselves, but crucial elements in creating security, stability and prosperity. The establishment of labour standards through the ILO and their effective enforcement are key to achieving this goal.”

On March 29, 2010, NUPGE president James Clancy called on the province and the Harper government in Ottawa to respond quickly to the U.N. agency’s decision.

“The ILO’s ruling is very troubling for both Saskatchewan and for Ottawa,” Clancy says. “It damages the human rights reputation of both the province and the Canadian government.”

Clancy urged Saskatchewan not to ignore the ILO or to try to avoid taking the corrective actions proposed by the United Nations body.

Canada has undertaken as a country to uphold the UN conventions it has signed over the years. In the case of this contravention of those obligations, the ILO has asked that it be regularly updated on the steps taken to implement its recommendations,” Clancy noted.

“The National Union will continue to monitor every aspect of this troubling case. We will not rest until corrective action is taken and the government of Saskatchewan demonstrates respect for the basic human rights of working people in the province.”

Unless the Harper government acts it too will be guilty of bringing shame not only to Saskatchewan, but to all of Canada.

ILO Report issued Mar. 25, 2010