Manitoba

Proposed legislation changes could strip retail workers' right to refuse Sunday work, union says

The union for thousands of grocery store workers in Manitoba is concerned proposed changes to Manitoba’s employment standards law could take away future retail workers’ right to refuse Sunday shifts. 

Amendment says employers can ask employees to agree to work Sundays in writing when they're hired

The proposed amendments add some exemptions to which retail workers have the right to refuse Sunday shifts without worrying about being punished for it. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The union for thousands of grocery store workers in Manitoba is concerned proposed changes to Manitoba's employment standards law could take away future retail workers' right to refuse Sunday shifts. 

The Manitoba government is looking into amending Manitoba's employment standards legislation so that retail workers would not be able to refuse work on Sundays under some circumstances. 

The existing legislation allows employees to take a Sunday off with 14 days notice, and not be penalized for it.

The proposed amendments add an exemption that, if passed, would prohibit employees from refusing to work Sundays if they agreed to work them in writing when they were hired. They would also be prohibited from refusing Sunday shifts if their collective agreement states that they can't, and/or if the business they work for has four employees or less. 

UFCW Local 832 president Jeff Traeger says the union is worried the amendment asking new employees to agree to work Sunday in writing would essentially get rid of the right to refuse Sunday work entirely for future retail employees and create a two-tiered system. 

The concern is that employers will start asking employees to sign away their right to refuse Sunday shifts as soon as they're hired, he said. 

"As soon as you do, you don't have the right to refuse. And if you don't, you don't get hired. So no one will have the right to refuse," he said. 

"This is kind of a backdoor way of getting rid of that piece of legislation effectively altogether." 

Traeger says there are plenty of retail employees who have no issue with working on Sundays, but it's important to have the right to refuse Sunday work to allow workers to maintain work-life balance. 

"If you take away the right to refuse, you are completely ignoring the needs of the workers," he said. 

"It's not good for working families not to have that ability to have some time together away from work." 

In line with other provinces: advocate

John Graham of the Retail Council of Canada says he thinks the amendments are reasonable given that they would only apply to future employees, who would have to agree in writing to not be able to refuse Sunday shifts. He said Sunday is often the busiest day for retailers, and employers need to be able to ensure they'll be covered. 

He also pointed out that the amendments would bring Manitoba in line with other provinces, where retail workers don't have the right to refuse Sunday work. 

"This is about modernizing the employment standards to reflect what's common practice across Canada for retail, but also common practice across Manitoba for restaurants and the hospitality sector," he said. 

However, Manitoba NDP Finance Critic Mark Wasyliw argued that just because that's the norm in other provinces doesn't make it right. 

"We shouldn't be trying to have a race to the bottom, we should be leading the country in fairness and having secure and safe workplaces where we treat all our workers fairly," he said. 

He said the proposed amendments create a loophole that could lead to employees being taken advantage of at a time when many people are desperate for income because of the pandemic. 

The exemptions to the right to refuse Sunday work were previously covered by the now repealed Retail Businesses Holiday Closing Act, which excluded employees from the right to refuse work on a Sunday based on where they worked. 

In an emailed statement, Finance Minister Scott Fielding said these previous exemptions were criticized as outdated and cumbersome, and the province is trying to simplify them. 

"While most Canadian jurisdictions do not have the right to refuse work on a Sunday at all, we want to balance retailers' needs to maintain adequate staffing levels with employees' wishes to have Sundays off to enjoy time with family and friends," he said. 

Fielding said all stakeholders' comments will be considered before the amendments are finalized.

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