Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press November 13, 2023
ON Oct. 3, Manitobans elected a new government which, like its predecessors, has promised to balance the provincial budget. The previous government’s program of tax breaks and cuts to public services should be a wake-up call to the incoming administration.
Cutting costs on the backs of public sector workers has had disastrous consequences for the public sector and, indeed, for all Manitobans.
Some of that policy’s most damaging effects have been felt in the Labour and Consumer Protection Divisions, whose staff ensure that Manitobans can count on fair treatment at work and as tenants and consumers.
Budget cuts have undermined the protections paid for by all Manitobans, creating barriers to access, lowering benefits, and reducing the quality of the social and legal programs that sustain the quality of life and work for people in the province.
Staff reductions, contracting-out, and declining resources in labour programs have weakened Manitobans’ assurance of safe workplaces where their rights will be protected. Consumer protection has been eroded and programs designed to increase the transparency of public expenditures have been cut. Demoralized staff in these programs struggle to provide service as their numbers shrink, causing workloads to increase. Many have left their jobs or are biding their time until retirement.
In 2017, the Manitoba government mandated an across-the-board wage freeze on the public sector, legislation that the courts ultimately ruled illegal and a violation the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While public sector unions were organizing against the wage freeze and other attacks on collective bargaining, the government was slashing budgets.
From 2016 to 2021, labour programs, including the Labour Board, Employment Standards, and Workplace Safety and Health, saw their budgets fall by 26.4 per cent in 2022 dollars, or over $4.3 million. Full-time equivalent staff numbers in Labour programs declined by 15.2 per cent. People in these departments reported that “key departments … are extremely short-staffed.”
Staff report “having to do 1.25 to 1.5 jobs for most of the year, but getting paid for one;” and “experiencing a high degree of burnout.”
Under the PC government, Manitoba has had the highest rate of time-loss workplace injuries of any province. In 2022, 22 workers were killed due to workplace injuries or illnesses in Manitoba. Thousands of workers are injured at work every year, and those rates are rising. Fewer workers than in any other province are covered by Workers Compensation.
Yet rather than increasing protection and benefits for workers, the government cut program funding. Between 2016 and 2022, Workplace Safety and Health, which enforces the regulations that protect Manitobans at work, lost 20.7 per cent of its budget in real terms and 9.9 per cent of its staff. Acute staff shortages at the Workers Compensation Board have left staff struggling with rising caseloads and unable to provide timely service, even though cost reductions at WCB, which is funded by employers, provide no benefit to taxpayers.
Employment Standards is often the only point of contact for workers who had been denied pay, fired unfairly, forced to work unpaid overtime, or encountered other problems with their employer. These staff enforce compliance with the legislated minimums that underpin workers’ most basic rights and resolve workplace conflicts, including compliance with minimum wages, hours of work, legal holidays, terminations and quits. Workers who are not protected by a union but believe their employer has violated the code have little recourse but to file a complaint. Yet staffing in this department has declined by 9.6 per cent from 2016-2022, and now workers with a complaint must contact a call centre for help.
Manitobans enjoy exceptional labour peace due in no small part to the efforts of Manitoba’s Labour Board, which enforces the Labour Relations Act. Yet the board lost 41 per cent of its funding in inflation-adjusted dollars, and 38.3 per cent of its staff complement between 2016 and 2022. The Manitoba government has achieved additional cost savings by privatizing conciliation and mediation services, effectively outsourcing this vital aspect of collective bargaining.
The government’s austerity measures have abrogated rights won by decades of struggle and undermined protections workers and consumers need, paid for by our taxes. The erosion of these crucial public services undermines our collective economic well-being and presages a less secure society where we can no longer rely on the state to protect our rights.
Julie Guard is a professor of history and labour studies at the University of Manitoba and a research associate at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.