Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne will unveil wide-ranging employment legislation on Tuesday that she says is overdue and will aim to make working hours more predictable and better paid.
The new employment rules will better reflect today's work force, according to the Premier, coming at a time when the economy is healthy enough to shoulder the additional expense of better benefits for workers facing part-time jobs and piecemeal contracts.
"There are some significant changes that need to be made to reflect the way work has changed over the past 30 years," she told The Globe and Mail on Monday. "We need to do whatever we can as a government to make sure that people have a fair shot at a stable workplace."
While some Ontarians have done well over the past 15 years – Ms. Wynne's Liberals have been in power for 13 – she says that the province's minimum wage "has not kept up with the reality of people's lives." Many groups have called for her government to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour while increasing vacation days for workers. Ms. Wynne did not go into specifics about the changes.
The announcement will cap a nearly six-week span where Ms. Wynne's government has brought in rent controls, reduced hydro rates and introduced a free drug plan for the province's youth.
Last week, the Ministry of Labour published the final report of its independent Changing Workplaces Review, authored by labour-law experts C. Michael Mitchell and John Murray after two years of consultation and analysis.
Ms. Wynne's legislation will reveal her government's response to the report. While she said she won't adopt all 173 recommendations, the new bill will bring fairer wages and benefits to workers, especially those in precarious positions, and broaden some groups' ability to unionize.
Why is the government doing this?
When Ontario started the process, the Ministry of Labour said it's about "strengthening protections for workers while supporting businesses." The legislative revisions, then, must walk a fine line, taking into account both Ontario's competitive position and the effects of precarious, part-time and contract work on Ontarians.
The ultimate goal is to bring Ontario's Employment Standards Act, Labour Relations Act and Occupational Health and Safety Act up to date with these economic and labour shifts.
There's also a political benefit for Ms. Wynne, who faces a tough re-election battle next year. A strong piece of workplace legislation could allow her Liberals to outflank the New Democrats and win labour-minded voters on the left of the political spectrum. New union protections and a higher minimum wage could also put Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown in a tough spot, forcing him to explain why his party opposes some of the measures on competitiveness grounds.
Will it pass?
Queen's Park can choose to accept none, any, or all of the recommendations laid out by the final report and may or may not immediately introduce them in legislation.
In a statement upon its release, Labour Minister Kevin Flynn used language that suggested forthcoming changes would favour workers. "Responsible change can ensure that every hard-working person in our province has the chance to reach their full potential," he said.
Catherine Fife, the Ontario NDP's employment critic has called for a quick response from Ms. Wynne's government on the review and has indicated her party will support legislation that grants workers more paid sick leave, a $15-minimum wage and easier rules for joining a union. "After 14 years of Liberal government with no significant changes to Ontario's labour laws, Ontarians deserve to see immediate action," she said.
The Tories have challenged the report and MPP John Yakabuski has said that he was "disappointed" by the lack of cost-benefit analysis in the measures recommended by the review. Mr. Yakabuski, the official opposition's labour critic, has said that enhanced worker protections are meaningless if they lead to a loss of jobs.
While the Liberals may want all-party support for the first major overhaul of labour rules in nearly a generation, the party's strong majority at Queen's Park would ensure passage without it.
What has public reaction been?
It will be difficult to satisfy everyone with new legislation. The province's biggest business and labour advocacy groups have already both spoken out against the Changing Workplace Review's recommendations.
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce is pleading for Queen's Park to do an economic impact analysis of its proposals before enshrining them in law, suggesting they'll increase costs for businesses and make the province less competitive. The Ontario Federation of Labour, meanwhile, considers the report to be full of half-measures for workers and a failed opportunity to make life better for those in part-time or impermanent jobs.
Growth in part-time jobs outpaced full-time work between 2000 and 2015; in 2016, Statistics Canada reports, 74,000 of the 81,000 jobs added in Ontario were part-time. The province wants legislation to reflect this new reality. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce disputes the relevance of these figures on their own and enlisted Philip Cross, a former Statscan chief economic analyst, for its own assessment of Ontario's labour market. According to his findings, part-time jobs make up a smaller share of all jobs than 25 years ago.
What are the key recommendations?
Equal wages: Part-time, casual, temporary and seasonal employees should be paid the same as full-time colleagues who do the same work. To avoid consequences including jacked-up costs for employers, the review stops short of suggesting such precariously employed workers become eligible for the same benefits and pensions;
Fix scheduling struggles – some day: Early stages of the review included much debate over how tight shift scheduling should be regulated. One consideration was to force employers to schedule as far as two weeks in advance – a move that would give workers more certainty in their lives. But in the restaurant and retail industries, this can become costly, removing the ability to keep service staff on call, in turn wrecking the flexibility managers need to adjust staffing to unexpected traffic.
The final report suggested the province avoid this contention for now and set up sector-specific committees with both employer and employee stakeholders to figure out the best way to regulate scheduling and other issues. Retail and fast food would be priority industries;
Simplify scheduled overtime: To ease overtime needs for employers, they should no longer need to seek approval from the ministry for employees working 48 to 60 hours a week;
Change (some groups') minimum wage: The review stopped short of recommending a widely speculated increase in basic minimum wage to $15 from $11.40. But it did suggest getting rid of certain exemptions to that minimum. Right now, student minimum wage is $10.70 and liquor servers' is $9.90;
Make time off more accessible: After five years at the same workplace, employees should get at least three weeks of vacation. And while expanded paid sick-leave rights would be ideal, the report suggests, "the more important first step" would be first to extend unpaid emergency leave to all workers, regardless of company size. Employees should be entitled to seven days of that leave annually, which should be accessible if the employee or the employee's child is a victim of domestic abuse, while bereavement leave should be considered outside of personal days.
Such measures could drastically improve life for many low-wage workers in precarious positions; as with wage increases, some small-business owners argue it'd squeeze already-tight margins;
Expand what "employee" means: As contract work becomes more common, the definition of an employee should be expanded to include "dependent" contractors – those who primarily rely on a single employer – and give them expanded protections;
Make it easier to unionize: If 20 per cent of employees in a bargaining unit support a union, employers should give it the full list of names and contact information of employees in the bargaining unit, which can help in organization efforts. And more occupations should be allowed to unionize, including domestic workers, hunters and trappers, as well as architectural, dental, land surveying, legal and medical professionals. The report also suggests that bargaining units from different franchisees of the same company in a given region be required to bargain together centrally, particularly in the fast-food and similar industries.
Opening up opportunities to unionize has some employers – including those working in manufacturing and other industries that sell globally – worried that subsequent increases in costs would drive customers to competitors in the United States and elsewhere;
Change enforcement: The authors believe the ministry should dedicate more funds to proactively ensure employers are compliant with legislation, but that it should amend employment standards law to avoid having to investigate all complaints. Policy should be developed to better protect whistle-blowing employees from reprisals;
Streamline legislation: The report suggests merging Ontario's three employment-focused acts into one "workplace rights act," doing an independent review of that act every five to seven years, and creating an "Ontario workplace forum" for stakeholders to regularly discuss workplace and economic developments.
Who else is doing this?
Alberta's NDP government announced that it would be overhauling that province's workplace rules for the first time in nearly 30 years at nearly the same time Ontario's review was released. The public reaction to Ontario's review echoed what was heard in Alberta after that province's Fair and Family Friendly Workplaces Act was unveiled – the bill didn't go as far as some labour groups had wanted and went further than many business groups were comfortable with.
Premier Rachel Notley's bill brought in changes to unpaid leave, allowing workers to take time off for compassionate reasons without fear of firing, set more generous rules for overtime and vacation pay and simplified union accreditation. Many concerns raised by groups in Ontario were reflected in Alberta's legislation.
One area where the provinces differ on is minimum wage. Ms. Notley has legislated an increase to $15 an hour by 2018. Some labour groups in Ontario would be disappointed with any labour package that does not include a similar increase.