What a difference a year makes in Ontario politics.
Last year, Ontarians were having a public conversation about the pressing need to update labour and employment-standards laws in order to support and protect workers.
We were talking about how hard it was to make a living on a minimum wage of just $11.60.
We were talking about how difficult it can be for employees to arrange for essentials, like child care, when they don’t know their schedule far enough in advance.
We were talking seriously about the nature and scope of precarious work: acknowledging the lack of sick pay, the lack of benefits, and the lack of retirement security.
And we were talking about Bill 148 — the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act — which had passed into law on November 22, 2017.
The bill committed to raising the minimum wage to $14 an hour on January 1, 2018, and then raising it again, to $15, a year later. It provided new rights for workers, including two paid sick days a year and equal pay for part-time, temporary, and contract workers. It included fairer scheduling rules, which would come into force on January 1, 2019.
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Now, a year later and with a new provincial government in power, the tone of discussion at Queen’s Park has changed drastically, and these gains are in jeopardy.
Minister of Labour Laurie Scott has told reporters that the minimum wage will be “paused” at $14 an hour and that the Progressive Conservative government is reviewing Bill 148 — though no changes have been tabled yet.
“Our government will also respect job creators and business in Ontario,” Scott said.
She was referring to advice the Tory government has been getting from the Chamber of Commerce, a business lobby that fought against the $15 minimum wage and against Bill 148 in general.
With a new, pro-business PC majority at Queen’s Park, the Chamber of Commerce isn’t pulling any punches: it’s lobbying for a full repeal of Bill 148.
And Premier Doug Ford appears to be listening.
During a recent question period, Ford said, “We’re getting rid of Bill 148,” and called the legislation “an absolute job killer.”
Recent experience in a number of jurisdictions — including Alberta and Ontario — as well as academic research, suggests that that’s not true.
Just this past August, the National Bank of Canada stated in a client note, “While Ontario’s minimum wage increase had the expected effect of lifting Canada’s average wage growth this year, the advertised negative impact on employment is less apparent.”
Nevertheless, Bill 148 remains in question as the PC government signals that it will take a more combative approach to workers.
Case in point: the government’s haste in bringing back the legislature in July to pass legislation forcing 3,000 striking contract faculty and graduate teaching and research assistants at York University back to work. Those workers were protesting low wages and a lack of job security.
As NDP leader Andrea Horwath stated at the time, “This initial move sends a signal that if the government's not happy with the process of negotiations, they're prepared to bring the big hammer of legislation forward. And that's never a good thing.”
So what’s next? There are some glimpses in Ernst & Young’s government-commissioned line-by-line review of Ontario’s books: it claims that Ontario has a spending problem (rather than, say, a revenue problem owing to decades of tax cuts).
It recommends “workforce optimization,” “no involuntary job losses,” and a “renewed approach to formal labour relations.” Read: downsizing the public sector through attrition and through battling with public-sector unions.
But Bill 148 has an impact on public- and private-sector workers right across the province. Ontario Federation of Labour president Chris Buckley put the following challenge to the premier: “Many working class people voted for you when you said you would stand up for them against the corporate elite ... And if you pick a fight with them, you pick a fight with us, the Ontario labour movement — right across the province."
The conversation around workers' rights is shifting rapidly under this new government, and Bill 148 is only the beginning. We could be in for a winter of labour discontent.
Trish Hennessy is director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Ontario office.
TVO.org invited the Ontario Chamber of Commerce to contribute an op-ed on this subject, but the organization declined.
For more on workers' rights and employment reform in Ontario, check out this segment of The Agenda With Steve Paikin from last year.