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Ontario Premier Doug Ford presents a hockey jersey to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, left, as Canada's provincial premiers meet in Toronto on Dec. 2, 2019.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Conservative governments in Canada have not generally been considered the friends of labour. When Premier Doug Ford, for instance, boasted after his party was elected to power in 2018 that Ontario was “open for business,” it was understood that his Progressive Conservatives were going to cut red tape, reduce business taxes and keep labour costs from rising.

Which they did – in spades. Mr. Ford’s government immediately cancelled a scheduled $1 increase to Ontario’s minimum wage, and reduced Workplace Safety and Insurance Board premium rates for employers by close to 30 per cent.

And for the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Ford refused to give low-wage workers paid sick leave. He only relented in April under intense pressure from his public-health advisers – and then said the costs would be borne by taxpayers, not by businesses.

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Conservative governments, in short, have often been the great defenders of business, not workers. So it’s hard to overstate how unusual it is that Monte McNaughton, Mr. Ford’s Minister of Labour, this week tabled a bill that will increase red tape for businesses and potentially raise some labour costs, in the name of making life better for workers.

“Our government is working for workers,” Mr. McNaughton said in the release accompanying the announcement of the deftly named Working for Workers Act. “We must act swiftly and decisively to put workers in the driver’s seat and begin rebalancing the scales.”

Come again?

“Ontario is ready to … create the conditions that will make talented, innovative people want to work in our great province,” said Mr. McNaughton.

Making a province attractive to both capital and labour used to be an either/or proposition in Conservative ideology. And yet, that is what the Ford government is hoping to accomplish.

Its proposed law would ban non-compete clauses that prevent employees from taking new jobs with other businesses in the same field – restrictions that employers often reflexively insist on, though they harm workers and hamstring the labour market.

It would require businesses with 25 or more employees to have a written policy stating their expectations when it comes to workers logging off e-mail at the end of the day. This is the very definition of “red tape.”

It would also make it easier for internationally trained immigrants to start careers in regulated professions, by eliminating the requirement to have experience in Canada before being licensed to work as, for instance, an architect or engineer, or in the skilled trades. (This doesn’t include the health professions – yet.)

As well, the law would clamp down on temp agencies that exploit immigrant workers, by requiring them to be licensed to operate and to post a bond to cover unpaid wages.

It even guarantees the right of food deliverers, couriers and truck drivers to use the washrooms at the business they serve. And Mr. McNaughton has said that broader legislation protecting the rights of gig workers will come this fall.

Suddenly, the PCs are rebranding as the worker’s best friend. And they’re not the only Conservatives doing it.

In Alberta, Jason Kenney’s government has tabled legislation to speed up the certification process in regulated professions for Canadians who move to the province.

And during the recent federal election, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole surprised everyone by promising to make large companies have “worker representation” on their board of directors, and “to remove barriers that prevent unions from organizing large employers with a history of anti-labour activity” (hello, Amazon).

Something is clearly going on. Any one of these proposals is worthy of broader discussion, especially as labour shortages caused by the pandemic persist. Some, like Ontario’s removal of barriers to entry for immigrants and greater scrutiny of outsourcing via temp agencies, are decades overdue.

But the larger story is the shift in ideology in Conservative ranks. There is a simple reason for it. After adopting the populist tactic of accusing Liberals and others foes of being wealthy, self-serving “elites,” they’ve figured something out: that a growing number of blue-collar people are voting Conservative and, to get more of those voters, they have to offer them something more nourishing than resentment.

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