By Andrew Stevens
Sunny ways are back in Saskatchewan. Manufacturing sales are up, exports are growing, oil production and mineral sales have increased, and the provincial government raked in a $1.2 billion surplus. We’re even seeing the population rebound after some years of stagnation. But what does this mean for the average worker? Well that depends.
The consumer price index in the province continues to exceed that of the national average, at 4.9%. The price of food has escalated more than most other goods and services, hitting middle and lower income people the most. And while wages have certainly grown over the pandemic, from an average of $28.10 per hour in 2020 to $31.50 by December of 2022, inflation has chewed up most of those gains. Bank of Canada rate hikes continue to hurt workers in the pursuit of inflation control. The average worker is only 4 cents richer now than they were three years ago when you look at hourly income.
Low wages continue to define industries like retail and food services, despite chronic labour shortages. Young women still define the ranks of minimum wage earners, with about half of these workers being under the age of 24. But that still means that just under fifty percent of minimum wage employees in Saskatchewan are adults, not teenagers living in their parent’s basements. And we know that young people are overrepresented in the poverty statistics – especially Indigenous youth.
Going into the pandemic, there were signs across Canada that poverty rates were leveling off and even decreasing, along with inequality. Recent census data shows that all age groups in Saskatchewan made meaningful gains in recent years, but the province continues to lag far behind the national average, despite our resource riches. Some research suggests that pre-pandemic income distribution programs have had positive effects on poverty and inequality, along with COVID-19 measures like CERB that benefitted low wage racialized workers the most. This merits further attention. Now, food bank use in on the rise and homelessness in Saskatchewan’s two major urban centres is growing at an alarming rate. Premier Moe can’t blame Trudeau for that. The Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) even made poverty and the Saskatchewan Income Support Program a focus of debate at their annual summit in April, 2023. That’s important.
There are other notable figures embedded within employment data that merit attention. The number of employed people has risen since the start of the pandemic, but so too has the population. Labour market participation rates are down for men and women, even though women have fared better since the start of the pandemic. Landed immigrants have also experienced some positive movement (total employed for this demographic grew by 24%), but for those born in Canada the rate fell by 3.7%. Retirement and going back to school are cited as the leading contributors for workers leaving the labour market.
But across the prairie region, labour market inclusion is hardly equal. Black and Arab residents suffer from stubbornly high unemployment rates (9.9% and 9.8% respectively), compared to 4.3% for non-visible minorities. For Indigenous people, the pandemic cut a positive trend in the labour market participation rate, going from 61.7% to 65.2% between 2020 and 2022. Job vacancies, meanwhile, remain high, which has prompted businesses to look abroad through various foreign worker streams, like the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP) for labour. The province’s reliance on migrant labour in some sectors emphasizes the need to ensure that Saskatchewan’s immigrant rights regime is properly funded and proactive in its work. The success of the Foreign Worker Recruitment and Immigration Service Act (FWRISA) is noteworthy in this regard.
And then there’s the matter of wage theft. Commonly defined by scholars as the “phenomenon of employees not being paid the wages and other monetary benefits to which they are legally entitled,” construction, retail, and food service industries topped the list of first time and repeat offenders. Fortunately, the number of incidents reported to the government has declined since 2016. Why that has happened is another question. It comes as no surprise that incidents are highest in largely non-unionized industries where precarious work is the norm.
While this brief report focuses on Saskatchewan, available research from other provinces illustrates similar patterns. Governments must do better by providing a comprehensive socio-economic picture of “growth” beyond job numbers, housing starts, investment, and GDP – and to ensure that economic development is inclusive. It can’t just be about “sunny ways” reporting.
The Saskatchewan Labour Rights Report was authority by Andrew Stevens (Associate Professor, University of Regina, and Rankandfile.ca co-editor) and Angele Poirier (graduate student, University of Regina).
 Vosko, L. F., Grundy, J., Tucker, E., Thomas, M. P., Noack, A. M., Casey, R., Gellatly, M., & Mussell, J. (2017). The Compliance Model of Employment Standards Enforcement: An Evidence-Based Assessment of its Efficacy in Instances of Wage Theft (SSRN Scholarly Paper No. 3022270). https://doi.org/10.1111/irj.12178