The Conservative government is set to ram through unprecedented changes to federal labour laws that will dramatically undercut your workplace rights and our ability to protect you and advance your interests.

These radical actions were buried in a massive ‘omnibus’ budget bill tabled in the House of Commons on October 22. The measures – amendments to various labour laws, including the Public Service Labour Relations Act and the Canada Labour Code – were brought down without either advance warning or consultation.

In fact, Treasury Board President Tony Clement says the true impact on federal government workers will only be made clear after the legislation becomes law. Our bargaining agent, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, is warning that this all-out assault on federal public service workers will irreparably damage relations between the government and its employees.

What is clear, however, is that the proposed watering-down of a number of health and safety provisions of the Canada Labour Code will put the workplace lives of Agriculture Union members at much greater risk. The Conservatives are planning some 50 amendments to long-standing protections federal workers have enjoyed for decades.

Our National President, Bob Kingston, personally has a particular passion for workplace health and safety issues. He currently co-chairs the Service-Wide Occupational Health and Safety Committee with Treasury Board, representing several hundred thousand workers.  He is also a member of the National Joint Council’s Occupational Health and Safety Committee, representing our bargaining agent, the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

The Harper government’s changes to health and safety protections, Kingston points out, “will present a huge obstacle to people actually exercising their rights in the workplace. I’m anticipating extremely serious consequences.”

Kingston’s concern is well placed. The Conservatives are intent on both (a) greatly limiting the effectiveness of your current right to refuse potentially dangerous or unsafe work and (b) stripping way your protection from managerial retribution for exercising that right.

If Harper and Clement get their legislative way, you would only be able to refuse to perform dangerous or unhealthy work in the face of “an imminent or serious threat to the life or health of a person”. The new regime would also effectively deny you protection from activities or conditions that could cause you future danger. Amazingly, such critical concerns as chronic illness, carcinogens or damage to reproductive organs would no longer be relevant.

As well, the authority and investigative power of trained professional health and safety officers would disappear. Instead, the Minister of Labour, or his or her (almost certainly less objective) appointee, would have the sole authority to exercise those duties.

Furthermore, the Minister or his or her appointee could simply refuse to investigate a workplace health and safety issue where they unilaterally deem your concern to be trivial, frivolous, vexatious or in bad faith.

Currently, it is extremely difficult for management to determine when a worker’s action is in bad faith. The new amendments would apparently bestow the Minister and his or her appointee with mind-reading powers, eliminating the employer’s burden of proof and opening you up to managerial discipline. You would be left to choose between endangering your health and safety or facing discipline for exercising your ‘right to refuse’.

“By changing the definition of danger and by vesting the current authority of health and safety officers solely with the Minister, there’s been a huge politicization of health and safety,” Kingston pointed out.

“The existing protections were the result of years of deliberations by expert participants on a tripartite basis. The undoing of all those improvements was done in secret with no consultation.”

The Conservatives, Kingston said, should scrap their proposed changes and consult in good faith with the PSAC and the other unions representing federal government workers.

Even labour relations lawyers who normally work for employers are amazed at the Conservatives’ roll-back of workplace health and safety protections. One of them, Shane Todd of the Toronto’s Heenan Blaikie law firm has publicly commented that “What we have, in a sense, is a reversion to a more restrictive definition of danger that we had in the mid-1970s.”