How business also benefits from the Liberals’ latest labour reforms

Posted on June 3, 2017 in Policy Context – Opinion/Commentary –
June 2, 2017

We face a perfect storm of economic disruption. Which is the perfect time to smooth out some of the upheaval in workers’ lives.

A $15 minimum wage made big news this week as Ontario announced major reforms to its labour laws. But beyond hourly wages, daily working conditions matter just as much to workers — as does the rise of precarious employment.

Jobs that are unstable, unpredictable and unprotected. People paid less than permanent employees, prone to shift changes, and prevented from unionizing to protect themselves.

Our unemployment rate of 5.8 per cent can’t get much lower; our economic growth leads the country. These are boom times for employers; but also precarious times for many employees.

Allowing market forces alone to dictate working conditions makes about as much sense as defending the six-day work week of two centuries ago. Or, say, two weeks of paid vacation a year, with no paid leave days — in the present century.

The latest proposals are based on two years of work by an expert panel that heard from both business and labour. But consultations do not a consensus make.

Facing her own precarious employment as premier, Kathleen Wynne has picked a pathway. It may not save her political skin, but it will leave the legacy she has been looking for after all these years in power.

The underpinning is a recognition that temporary workers and so-called contract workers should not be treated as perpetual second-class citizens merely because they are precarious and not permanent. That means equal pay for equal work, reducing the temptation of employers — among them the government-owned LCBO — to maintain constant churn and impermanence in their workforce as a way to avoid the proper wages and benefits that loyal workers deserve.

An updated Employment Standards Act would reverse the onus on employers to show that they are not skirting the law by “misclassifying employees as “independent contractors” of convenience. No longer can major companies pretend that their once permanent workforces have magically migrated to individual workers who don’t deserve the safeguards they once did.

The new vacation minimum will be three weeks after five years of employment. Workers can get two paid emergency days. Without proper notice of shift changes, workers will be paid out.

The lynchpin for labour is a recognition that unionization has a correlation with working conditions — and that decreased membership has increased vulnerability. Organizing drives will be made easier for key sectors, notably building and cleaning services, home care and temporary help agencies, where fragmented workplaces make it hard to sign up individual members.

And the minimum wage will go up to $14 by next year and $15 in 2019 — a sweetener for workers (bittersweet for business) because pay scales were not part of the original employment review.

Business and the business press are kicking and screaming, accusing Wynne of acting like a New Democrat — an allegation echoed by a nonplussed NDP. A few unions are equally unhappy, but two of Canada’s most influential labour leaders — Jerry Dias of Unifor and Hassan Yussuff of the Canadian Labour Congress — are hailing the proposals as a welcome first step in addressing workers’ rights and redressing historical wrongs.

No one got everything they wanted, but there is no question the package tilts in favour of labour. That comes in the context, however, of an increasingly precarious playing field tilted in favour of employers — not least when the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris reduced union protections, some dating from the Bill Davis era.

In that sense, these reforms reposition the pendulum to an equilibrium. Now, with PC leader Patrick Brown seemingly poised to become premier next year, labour has good reason to wonder whether Wynne’s legacy will be left behind by another right-wing government.

For most of the past two decades, the Tories have demonized elected labour leaders as so-called “union bosses,” culminating in proposals by previous leader Tim Hudak to enact “right-to-work” laws defanging labour. Brown is now wooing willing unionists, but much of his opposition caucus cheerfully rallied behind the anti-labour rhetoric.

What distinguishes the latest Liberal package from traditional political footsie is that it offers a lifeline to private-sector unions at a time when they are treading water, as opposed to public-sector unions that have always fended for themselves. The beneficiaries of these reforms will be precarious employees for whom unionization has long been a remote possibility, and for whom legal protections have recently become more theoretical than practical.

The other big winner? Business groups, such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which can now launch fresh fundraising drives to tap into yet more fearmongering about the precarious state of employers.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, June 3rd, 2017 at 10:56 am and is filed under Policy Context. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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