Jim Stanford is Harold Innis Industry Professor of Economics at McMaster University.
No one should be surprised Ontario Premier Doug Ford cancelled the upcoming increase in the province’s minimum wage. It was scheduled to jump to $15 an hour on Jan. 1. Mr. Ford pledged to cancel that increase during the spring election.
Mr. Ford doesn’t like the existing $14 minimum wage either, but it would be political suicide to propose cutting it. Instead, he will freeze it until October, 2020, effectively reducing its purchasing power by about a dollar. After that, it will be indexed to inflation. I don’t agree with the freeze, and believe it will hurt the provincial economy – but voters were warned.
That is not the case, however, with the government’s big new package of labour law changes, Bill 47. Now that’s he in power, Mr. Ford has unveiled a much bigger agenda – one he neglected to discuss when running for office. The omnibus bill contains more than 200 provisions affecting nine different pieces of legislation. It repeals most of the reforms included in the previous Liberal government’s Bill 148, and in some cases takes labour law back even further.
Bill 148 was implemented in 2017, the culmination of a two-year research and consultation process that documented how work is fundamentally changing, and how labour regulations should keep up. In contrast, Bill 47 was cobbled together in weeks, behind closed doors. It is driven more by retributive politics than genuine policy: Simply throwing out whatever the previous government legislated hardly constitutes an effective response to modern labour-market challenges.
Indeed, there’s a good analogy between the government’s wholesale rollback of labour law and its approach to sex education for students. Catering to social conservatives, the new government scrapped an updated 2015 health curriculum that addressed uncomfortable realities such as sexting, consent and gender identity. Instruction will now revert mostly to material prepared in 1998 – long before social media even existed. Educators know turning back the clock back 20 years cannot prepare students for the perils of contemporary sexual life.
Similarly, just throwing previous labour law on the scrap heap ignores important new knowledge about how present-day work is changing, and how it can be made better and safer. Most of Bill 148 reflected a genuine effort to modernize labour law in the face of continuing labour-market change. The government’s decision to dispose of these provisions en masse is essentially sticking its head in the sand – just as it did with sex-ed.
Here’s how Bill 47 ignores current labour economics and tries to reinvent a labour market that no longer exists:
Removing paid emergency leave: When a child is sick, there’s no longer an at-home parent to care for them. Economists are unanimous that allowing workers to balance family responsibilities with paid work is critical to labour force participation and career progression. Bill 47 cuts time off for family emergencies to three days each year from up to 10 – none of which now needs to be paid. Apparently, the government thinks mom is still at home.
Eliminating notice for schedule changes: Many Ontarians now hold multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. This isn’t possible, however, if any one of their employers can demand their attendance at any time, even on short notice. Bill 47 removes the right of workers to refuse shifts assigned with less than 96-hours notice, and eliminates the requirement for employers to pay a small penalty (three-hours pay) for cancelling shifts on short notice.
Requiring a doctor’s note for sick leave: Public health advocates urge people with routine illness to stay home – but Bill 47 allows employers to demand a doctor’s note from workers taking sick leave. At best, this is an enormous waste of health resources; at worst, it facilitates contagion. And by eliminating paid sick leave entirely, Bill 47 compels ill Ontarians to go to work to share their germs.
Permitting discrimination on basis of employment relationship: The rise of new business models (such as on-demand platforms) has blurred the definition of employment, and many firms are using this loophole to evade traditional obligations (such as the minimum wage). Bill 47 explicitly allows employers to pay part-time, temporary, or labour-hire workers less than regular employees. It also removes the legal onus on them to prove that so-called “contractors” are not in fact employees.
The government’s claim that the previous rules were “killing jobs” is laughable: Since Bill 148, Ontario’s unemployment rate has averaged 5.6 per cent – the lowest since 1989. Its purported commitment to eliminate “red tape” is also bogus. For example, Bill 47 slashes maximum penalties on employers for labour standards violations to $25,000 from $100,000. That won’t cut any red tape: It takes just as many bureaucrats to collect a small fine as a big one. But it sure sends a message to employers about the integrity of whatever labour laws are left on the books.
In essence, Bill 47 is a grumpy backlash against labour-market reality. Pretending that issues such as precarious work, gig jobs and work-family balance don’t exist will hardly prepare Ontarians for the real world of work that lies ahead.