On October 2, Premier Doug Ford took to the floor of Queen’s Park to make an announcement: “We’re going to make sure we tell the world Ontario is open for business,” and in order to make the province “competitive around the world,” it is time to get rid of Bill 148. This decision is a massive coup by greedy employers and a blow to the rights of Ontario’s workers, including students.
Bill 148, also known as the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, was passed in November 2017 by the recently ousted Liberal government. Notably, it increased the minimum wage in Ontario to $14 per hour — with a further increase to $15 per hour set for January 2019.
The act established an ‘equal pay for equal work’ clause, by which part-time employees performing the same tasks as full-time employees would be paid the same wage. It also standardized the potential of a full 10 days of leave a year, whereas previously, some workplaces had no obligation to give their employees any leave. Finally, it gave workers the right to refuse last-minute shift changes without the risk of being fired.
The law is summarized on the Ontario government’s website: “Many workers struggle to support their families on part-time, contract or minimum-wage work, and many more don’t have access to time off due to illness.” It is specifically geared toward punishing predatory employers who exploit gaps in existing legislation and changes in the job market.
Students often take up part-time employment during the semester to pay their bills. Those who work in industries like retail and services — as a customer sales representative or barista, for example — stand to lose the most from the act being repealed.
Chris Buckley, President of the Ontario Federation of Labour, explained that Bill 148 addressed “shamefully outdated labour and employment laws.” For example, before the introduction of Bill 148, workplaces with under 50 employees were able to refuse giving sick leave. They could also label some part-time employees as ‘independent contractors,’ exempting them from being paid as much as full-time employees.
The push for repeal has been led in part by the Retail Council of Canada (RCC). In a letter dated September 24, it argued that Bill 148 had directly led to the loss of over 46,000 jobs in Ontario’s retail and wholesale sector, with the biggest factor being the increase in the minimum wage from $11.40 to $14, forcing layoffs and increasing prices of goods.
The RCC has grossly mischaracterized this loss. The Ontario labour market has gained almost 83,000 jobs in the public sector since September 2017, despite a sharp decline in January this year. The retail industry lost only 14,500 jobs, of which over 5,000 came from the shuttering of retail giant Sears.
The RCC also said that the use of the two new days of paid leave is disproportionately higher than unpaid leave and thus shows that employees are misusing them. Its position is that, rather than amending the bill to address their concerns, the province should just start over with a repeal.
According to the RCC, worker’s rights were implemented too quickly, and the minimum wage was raised too fast for businesses to cope — a convenient stance that would let employers continue underpaying workers while stonewalling any meaningful replacement legislation.
It’s not just retail; the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) released a statement on August 30 with a quote from its president and CEO, Rocco Rossi: “Premier Ford pledged to make Ontario ‘Open for Business’… this begins with the reversal of Bill 148.” The OCC released its statement within a day of the Ford government’s meeting with top Canadian banks.
This was no coincidence. By opening himself up to the advice of ‘experts,’ Ford was inviting big business interests and lobbying. While the Ford government has yet to introduce legislation to repeal Bill 148, it seems that the move to repeal it is almost a foregone conclusion.
The arguments for repealing this act are misleading. Part-time employment takes a natural dip in the summer. Before the implementation of two paid sick days with Bill 148, sick leave was rarely taken because employees could not afford to miss work, even for the benefit of their own health. The province is labelling this as a victory for Ontario’s economy, when it disenfranchises workers who were already being treated cynically by service and retail industries.
Ford’s eagerness to accept lobbyists into Queen’s Park betrays how willing he is to deal with moneyed interests in even the early stages of his premiership. Furthermore, aiming to repeal Bill 148 shows his disregard for poverty-stricken and student workers and how the province is clueless, or at least willfully ignorant, about the state of Toronto’s job market.
The introduction of Bill 148 was a step toward fairer work practices in a province lagging behind in terms of workers’ rights. If Ford repeals the bill, the employees of Ontario will know that he does not have all of their best interests in mind.
William Cuddy is a fifth-year Political Science and History student at Victoria College.