When social and economic problems increased in the early 20th century as more workers found jobs off the farm, Saskatchewan government officials offered few protections other than periodic inspections of factories, shops, mines, and other sites. In spite of growing trade unionism, with membership of the Dominion Trades and Labour Congress more than doubling between 1910 and 1918, the government of Saskatchewan into the 1920s apologetically enforced minimum regulation of hours of work and working conditions: laws for adult males—especially wage laws—were seen as an unconstitutional deprivation of liberty, with the exception of a few fair-wage schedules. As in many provinces, union leaders met with the executive branch of government about improving the lives of working people. In Saskatchewan, annual labour reports documented labour’s suggestions and government’s tepid responses from 1911 until the early 1940s.
A distinction is often made between “labour laws” that govern collective bargaining relations between employers and unions, and “employment laws” that affect individual employment relationships. In Saskatchewan, as in most provinces, separate statutes cover these matters. The Department of Labour has traditionally administered the Trade Union and the Construction Industry Labour Relations Acts dealing with organized labour. The Department of Labour also administers an Occupational Health and Safety Act and a Radiation Health and Safety Act dealing with both organized and unorganized labour. Another important piece of legislation is the Labour Standards Act, mainly addressing minimum standards for all workers such as hours of work, overtime, holidays, layoffs, and dismissals. There is also a Canada Labour Code for residents who work under federal laws.
Other legislation that is referred to as employment law includes matters such as federal Employment Insurance Legislation, and Workers Compensation and Pension Benefits legislation, found at both levels of government. Other examples of legislation are sometimes industry-specific, such as the early Fire Departments Platoon Act, or of a more general nature, such as the Victims of Workplace Injuries Day of Mourning Act. The Department of Labour has also administered from time to time legislation dealing with employment, such as the Employment Agencies Act, and legislation dealing with Women’s Affairs. Many of the laws affecting working people were proposed by the labour movement at that time: talks between the Saskatchewan executive of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) and the government of the day were visionary and far-reaching even before 1920, when the Labour Division of the Department of Agriculture became an independent commission.
The TLC Saskatchewan executive would meet annually with government until the 1930s, with a broad set of proposals—some of them consistent with today’s definition of labour and employment laws. As early as 1911 and into the 1920s they proposed improvements to the Factories Act, pleading for child protection laws for children less than 14, then 15 and finally 16 years of age. In 1920 they proposed an insured workers compensation scheme, including by 1921 details on its administration.
The Saskatchewan executive of the TLC requested a system of inspections for grain elevators and other establishments. They proposed licensing and reliable training for electrical, construction, plumbing and other journeymen throughout the 1920s. The Congress made presentations on minimum wage, first for women, then repeatedly for men and others who were exempt under the legislation. They proposed one day of rest in seven, a half-day holiday, improvements to the Masters Servants Act and implementation of other International Labour Organization’s proposals; yet they never abandoned the quest for an eight-hour day. They proposed the first independent provincial Trade Union Act as well as improvements to basic Labour Standards, Occupational Health and Safety provisions, and asked for insured compensation for workplace accidents and for a public pension plan.
An important gain dating back to 1919 was the establishment of a Minimum Wage Act that permitted investigators to determine the earnings required for “a girl dependent on her own earning … to live in reasonable comfort.” At that time, this was determined to be $15 a week, and minimum wage for experienced female workers in shops was set at that level. Unfortunately, lower wages were proposed for mail-order houses, factories, and laundries. This established an early precedent of divorcing minimum wage from the actual cost of living and from the original intent of the law. Minimum wages were reduced in the early 1930s, although gradually the Minimum Wage Act was amended to extend coverage to others. Yet, even today, domestic and agricultural workers remain outside the full coverage of the Act. In 1944 the Douglas government actually took the cumulative list of workers’ suggestions—many contained in annual reports going back over thirty years—and began to implement them.
The list of accomplishments of the CCF government in its first term alone is impressive: it took over one of Canada’s poorest and least industrialized provinces, yet promptly gave provincial employees free collective bargaining, made it easier for unions to organize, and presided over an series of reforms that made Saskatchewan the leader of social reform in Canada for twenty years. This involved far-reaching proposals to introduce and pass advanced trade union legislation that included public sector bargaining (1944). It involved provision for equalization and enrichment of education through a reorganized school system and increasing financial support by 300% (1945–46), as well as developing a universal hospital services plan (1947). The province established a compulsory no-fault automobile insurance plan (1946), and introduced Canada’s first Bill of Rights (1947). Seniors and the mentally ill received free health care, full medicare being introduced in 1962. Despite many precedents being set in Saskatchewan, progress remains a struggle and patterns have varied with the government of the day. Organized labour has been very disappointed, for example, that the province has yet to develop “equal pay for work of equal value” legislation, relying instead on weakly enforced “equal pay for similar value” legislation passed in the 1970s.
Despite setbacks, however, Saskatchewan continues to pioneer innovations in labour legislation, introducing working people to the three-week vacation under Labour Standard by 1958, and passing in 1972 the first Occupational Health and Safety Act in Canada, which included sexual and other harassment as an occupational health issue by 1993–94. When other provinces were retrenching and reducing worker benefits in the 1990s, Saskatchewan continued to make improvements to pieces of legislation including the Trade Union Act, Occupational Health and Safety, Pension Benefits, Workers Compensation, and the Construction Industry Labour Relations Act. Labour Standards now provide for those who become disabled on the job. A very significant piece is the “most available hour’s” legislation, which will allow part-time workers to claim additional available hours as they become available in their workplace. This was passed in 1995 but is yet to be proclaimed.