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Ontario Premier Doug Ford.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Well of course Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour is a crass re-election ploy. Do ducks swim? Is ice cream delicious? Will this government backpedal over just about anything if they think it might improve their popularity?

There is a good argument to be made that Ontario’s minimum wage workers are long overdue for a raise. Yet the argument being offered by Mr. Ford and his ministers – namely, that the pandemic has changed everything, making now the perfect time for a $15 minimum wage – is less convincing.

Employers who are able have already started offering higher pay to try to entice workers during the current labour shortage. The pandemic recovery is also still in its infancy, meaning the economy will likely endure continued turbulence over continuing supply-chain woes, interest-rate changes and inflation anxiety before it returns to some degree of “normal.” A surprise minimum wage hike – which includes a 20 per cent increase to the liquor servers minimum wage, which currently stands at $12.55 for bartenders and wait staff – is not exactly the type of thing that’ll see to a smooth, uncomplicated recovery. Indeed, ask restaurant owners who have navigated rolling lockdowns over the past year-and-a-half whether now is the perfect time to substantially increase their operating expenses, and you’ll get a decidedly different answer.

But that doesn’t really matter when this announcement – and the timing thereof – is primarily a pre-election branding exercise. The centrepiece of that branding is the Working for Workers Act, unveiled by the government late last month, which includes a collection of labour policy changes intended to improve workplace conditions and provincial employment standards in Ontario.

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The substance of the proposed legislation is actually quite good; it includes labour reforms that will, for example, make it easier for immigrants who have been trained abroad to acquire professional accreditation in Ontario; require businesses to allow delivery workers to use their washroom facilities when picking up or dropping off packages; ban the use of non-compete clauses for employees after they leave a company; and require businesses that employ 25 or more people to have a written policy on “disconnecting from work” after hours.

This new, worker-centred approach represents a huge shift for a government that, just a couple of years ago, cancelled a planned increase to minimum wage, which Mr. Ford labelled a provincial “job killer.” It also eliminated two mandatory paid sick days, capped pay for public sector workers (which included a cap on salaries for nurses and teachers) and removed a requirement that part-time staff be paid the same wages as full-time staff.

But that was the old Ford government – the recently-won-an-election Ford government. The new Ford government – the wants-to-win-an-upcoming-election Ford government is a friend to the province’s workers; an ally in Queen’s Park. Indeed, it’s practically unrecognizable from the Progressive Conservative Party from two elections ago, which campaigned on eliminating 100,000 public-sector jobs (“Through attrition!” former leader Tim Hudak is crying out somewhere, in vain).

Mr. Ford is following a relatively new path charted by Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who positioned his party during the past election campaign as union-friendly worker-advocates who will see to employee representation on boards of directors and federal protections for gig economy workers. By positioning itself as the party for blue-collar workers, the Conservative Party quite nimbly occupied a space that the federal NDP was perceived to have abdicated in pursuit of more social and cultural progressive causes.

The PCs in Ontario look to be trying to do the same by introducing a host of pre-election labour reforms, taking on a new mantle facilitated by a provincial NDP that, despite being the Official Opposition for the past nearly four years, hasn’t quite figured out how to get itself noticed for much of anything. It appears that “workers” are to Canadian conservative parties what “the middle class” has been to Liberals over the past few years; a group to which the majority self-identify, ripe for targeted policy proposals and election-time campaigning.

The hope among the PCs, clearly, is Ontarians will forget that Mr. Ford banned playgrounds in the spring and nearly sent cops out across the province to track down people who were leaving home for unnecessary purposes. Instead, he’ll be the guy who gets your boss to stop e-mailing you at 9:30 p.m. (though exemptions and workarounds tend to be plentiful with this sort of legislation) and will see that your company doesn’t make you sign a non-compete contract when you leave.

That’s not a bad thing, and indeed, it’s about time that conservative parties in Canada get behind sensible, evidence-based labour reforms and worker protections (even if the timing of a minimum-wage increase might be inopportune for employers). No doubt this is an exercise in re-branding for Mr. Ford, but if it comes with material benefits for workers, it’s among the shrewdest backpedals he’s offered yet.

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