Monday, July 19, 2010

Wall government refusing to disclose latest Saskatchewan Minimum Wage Board report and recommendations

The results of the first review to be conducted under the Saskatchewan Party government of the province’s minimum wage are being withheld from the public.

The Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety turned down an access to information request made in June for a copy of any final report or recommendations by the Saskatchewan Minimum Wage Board concerning its recent review of the minimum wage.

“Access to the records relevant to your request is denied, pursuant to section 16(1)(a) of The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act,” said Mike Carr, the deputy minister of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety, in a letter dated July 7, 2010.

Section 16 of the Act pertains to cabinet documents, including records created to present advice, proposals, recommendations, analyses or policy options to executive council or any of its committees.

The Wall government announced the review on September 25, 2009, inviting the public to submit their opinions, concerns and experience with the minimum wage by October 30, 2009.

Nearly ten months has passed and there has been only silence from the Wall government on the review’s outcome.

Dealing with the board’s report doesn’t appear to be a priority for the government. It’s not included in the former Advanced Education, Employment and Labour’s plan for 2010-11. And it’s not listed in the premier’s mandate letter (dated June 29, 2010) for new Labour Relations and Workplace Safety minister Don Morgan.

The last review of the minimum wage was done by the previous NDP government and took half the time. The review was announced on May 1, 2007, and the results made public just five months later. The board’s report is dated July 2007, so the review itself was completed in less than two months.

In a news release on October 3, 2007, the Calvert government announced a three stage increase that saw the minimum wage move to $8.25 per hour on January 1, 2008, to $8.60 on May 1, 2008 and to $9.25 per hour on May 1, 2009.

The plan called for an adjustment “in 2010 to bring the minimum wage to the Low Income Cut-off (LICO). Along with this increase, legislation will be introduced that permits the minimum wage to be indexed in future years annually on May 1, to the consumer price index. Indexing the minimum wage beginning in 2010 will ensure that minimum wage workers are able to maintain a standard of living equivalent to the LICO.”

However, the results of the November 2007 provincial election prevented that from happening.

On December 21, 2007, the new Saskatchewan Party government issued a news release announcing a three stage increase to the minimum wage identical to the one planned by the former NDP government. But one thing was missing – indexing the minimum wage to the consumer price index.

In an interview with StarPhoenix reporter James Wood, the then Advanced Education, Employment and Labour (AEEL) Minister, Rob Norris, said he wanted to take a “fresh look” in the new year at the idea of linking the minimum wage to LICO and indexing further increases.

“We’re reviewing it. We haven’t dismissed it by any means,” he said from Saskatoon. “I want to make sure I have a more informed opinion.”

Norris said the government would make a decision in the first quarter of 2008.

Wood noted that at the time of the October announcement, the Saskatchewan Party’s then-finance critic and now First Nations and Métis Relations minister, Ken Cheveldayoff, boasted his party was the first to recommend indexing the minimum wage. [Sask. Party will go ahead with three-stage hike to minimum wage (StarPhoenix, December 22, 2007)]

Just as the minimum wage was about to increase to $8.60 on May 1, 2008, Norris began to shamelessly stall on the government’s promise to make a decision on whether to index future increases to the rate of inflation as promised by the previous NDP government.

On April 22, 2008, Norris told reporters the issue was still being studied.

According to the StarPhoenix, Norris said that “predictability” of increases for employers and employees is the government’s focus.

But he would not say how that relates to the NDP’s plan.

Norris said there are other options being considered, which he declined to name. The feedback from the business community on linking the minimum wage to inflation has been “mixed,” he said. [Minimum wage hike schedule under review (StarPhoenix, April 23, 2008)]

There’s nothing ‘mixed’ about how the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce view the subject.

The CFIB told the Leader-Post at the time that it recommended the provincial government reject the previous announcement to raise the minimum wage to the low income cutoff and then indexing it annually to the consumer price index.

“We just think those are non-starters. We hope the government will adopt a more common-sense alternative,” said CFIB spokeswoman Marilyn Braun-Pollon.

Rather than increasing the minimum wage, Braun-Pollon said small Saskatchewan businesses owners would like the government to increase the basic personal tax exemption and introduce a two-tier wage system. [Minimum wage on the way up (Leader-Post, April 30, 2008)]

In the November 2009 edition of its newsletter action!, the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce said it “is strongly opposed to indexing the minimum wage to the consumer price index or any other form of economic indicator. Indexing minimum wage to either the CPI, inflation, or one of many other economic indicators is not a reliable indication of affordability or net economic impact.”

The Saskatchewan Chamber says it’s also against raising the minimum wage from its current rate, and even seems to suggest that, given the huge personal income tax cuts the Wall government enacted in 2008, low-income workers in the province have more than enough after-tax money left in their pockets. [action!, Nov./Dec. 2009]

It sure would be interesting to know how much the CFIB’s Braun-Pollon and Saskatchewan Chamber CEO Steve McLellan are paid each year. Unfortunately, neither organization posts this kind of information on its website. One can safely bet, though, it’s a lot more than the minimum wage.

Raising the basic personal exemption is an idea the business community flogs every time the subject comes up. The fact is it won’t help most low-income earners because they already don’t pay provincial tax.

While it is true that a higher minimum wage means workers will pay more in CPP and EI contributions, the result will be an improvement in EI benefits if they become unemployed and higher CPP payments when they retire.

Then there’s the hit to the treasury. How would the provincial government compensate for the loss in revenue? The Wall government is already cash strapped and looking to slash 15 per cent of the civil service over the next four years. What’s left to cut, programs and services? The business weasels at the CFIB and Saskatchewan Chamber would love that.

Most workers likely understand that the income taxes they pay help to cover the costs for important public services like health care, education, libraries, community centres, parks, swimming pools, sports fields, fire, policing, and public transit.

The two-tier wage scheme would benefit the hospitality and retail industries where wages are already low, the turnover rate high and part-time is prevalent. Employers could conceivably go through dozens of workers without ever having to pay them the full minimum wage. Coupled with the Wall government’s decision in July 2009 to establish age 14 as the absolute minimum age of employment, the situation becomes even more exploitative.

The CFIB had lobbied for changes to that legislation to help address labour shortages across the province, especially in the hospitality sector. According to Braun-Pollon in a May 1, 2009, letter to then AEEL deputy minister Wynne Young, that sector “had the second highest long-term vacancy rate in Saskatchewan.” The CFIB tried to sell the issue as providing young workers with an opportunity to get some valuable work experience.

The CFIB routinely use British Columbia as an example of what they’re after. Introduced by the BC Liberals in 2001, the so-called “training wage” allows employers to pay someone new to the workforce as little as $6 an hour for their first 500 hours of employment. Imagine someone working part-time at 10 hours per week. It would take almost a year before they became eligible for the full-time minimum wage. And there’s nothing to prevent employers from letting someone go when they reach 500 hours, and then hire another worker at the cheap rate. It’s discriminatory and devalues workers.

The then BC Labour Minister, Graham Bruce, said enforcement of the 500-hour limit for the first-job wage will be complaint-driven, meaning it would be up to young workers and parents to go after unscrupulous employers.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the training wage was requested by the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association and the Retail Merchants’ Association of B.C. [Training wage to take effect Nov. 15: $2-under-minimum rate just what food industry was seeking (Vancouver Sun, October 30, 2001)]

In the legislature during question period on April 30, 2009, Andy Iwanchuk, the Opposition NDP’s labour critic, asked Norris point blank, ‘is the Sask Party government going to link the minimum wage to LICO and index it, or is the minister still reviewing this?’

Norris replied: “Mr. Speaker, I certainly appreciate the opportunity to provide an update. I think as I’ve said previously in this Assembly, my first analysis on the timing was probably a little bit optimistic. That review still continues, Mr. Speaker.”

Despite follow-up questions from Iwanchuk, Norris would not say anything further.

On May 1, 2009, the minimum wage increased to the current $9.25 per hour. Even at that rate, Saskatchewan’s minimum wage is still well below a living wage. A provincial government news release issued on April 17, 2009, said there are approximately 12,000 minimum wage earners in Saskatchewan.

Then on July 13, 2009, came the announcement that the Wall government had replaced all five members of the province’s minimum wage board.

The provincial government made the sweeping changes to cast “fresh eyes” on the issues, the StarPhoenix reported.

“Essentially these are positions that we thought needed to be refreshed,” said AEEL Minister Rob Norris.

Opposition labour critic Andy Iwanchuk charged the Saskatchewan Party government doesn’t want a board that might make recommendations about minimum wage it doesn’t want to implement, such as indexing, the article said.

But Norris insisted that option is still on the table and will be considered by the board.

Norris said he has encouraged the new board to consult with members of the Enterprise Saskatchewan board, set up by the Saskatchewan Party government to offer advice on furthering economic development in the province.

“I think by working more closely with Enterprise Saskatchewan, the new board will actually be in a position to receive feedback from a wide variety of sectors and I look forward to hearing about the work as it gets underway and, obviously, as they complete it by the end of the year,” Norris said.

An NDP news release charged some new board members “have strong ties to the Sask. Party, including donors, former political candidates and members of the business community who have campaigned on its behalf in the past.”

Sandy Ewert, one of the new members, ran for the Saskatchewan Party in 2003.

The five-member board now consists of: Wayne Watts of Saskatoon, chair of the board; Wayne Sannes of Moose Jaw; Margaret Hasein of Biggar; Judith Riddell of Carlyle; and Sandy Ewert of Martensville. [Minimum wage board revamped (StarPhoenix, July 14, 2009)]

That Enterprise Saskatchewan is a major player in the debate was never revealed before.

What Norris failed to mention – and the print media to report – is that the Enterprise Saskatchewan board, along with its 18 sector teams and 3 strategic issues councils, is industry-led and comprised of many Saskatchewan Party supporters and contributors. Their primary function is to identify so-called barriers to economic growth and make recommendations to the provincial government on removing them. The CFIB and the Saskatchewan Chamber have a close working relationship with the Saskatchewan Party government, and have long disliked the province’s labour laws, including minimum wages. To them, they’re barriers that must be dismantled. And the Wall government has been only too happy to oblige since taking office.

In March 2008, the Wall government fired the entire Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board and installed its own people – like management-side lawyer Ken Love as chair, a longtime Saskatchewan Party supporter. Deputy Premier Ken Krawetz warned that more personnel changes were coming to provincial agencies, boards to commissions to better reflect Saskatchewan Party ideology.

Krawetz was head of the new Saskatchewan Party government’s transition team following the November 2007 election.

“We’ve seen an NDP government in place for 16 years. This is the first time the province has had a new government and we need to ensure that we move forward based on our philosophy and the renewal that we need,” he told reporters at the legislature. [Provincial bodies to reflect Sask. Party philosophy: Krawetz (StarPhoenix, March 14, 2008)]

No doubt the new minimum wage board members were expected to conduct their deliberations last fall accordingly.

ATI request to AEEL for minimum wage board report

Premier Brad Wall with CFIB's Marilyn Braun-Pollon (center)

Premier Brad Wall with Sask. Chamber of Commerce


At 1:32 PM, Blogger Saskboy said...

I recognize the fellow in the back row second from the left, as head of Evraz/Ipsco. He was at a government town hall regarding an Office of Climate Change, which was supposed to have been running by June of this year. Naturally he was concerned that putting a price on pollution would put Evraz out of business in this province.

At 2:16 PM, Blogger Kim said...

Hi, I'm so sorry the Sask party are looking to BC for guidance. You need to get rid of them ASAP!

Find yours elections website and follow the money. Every letter to the editor you find supporting these draconian measures, take that name and look up their political donations to the party. Publish it.

In BC our minimum wage is still $8 per hour, with the stupid training wage still in place. We have the highest cost of living in Canada. The highest rate of child poverty and the MSM here refuses to do their job.

Be aware that this country as a whole is no longer a democracy. Organise. Sharpen your pitchfork.

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