The U of T chapter of Fight for $15 and Fairness calls for student action on labour rights. PHOTO COURTESY OF 15 AND FAIRNESS

Only a few months ago, Premier Doug Ford’s Bill 47 repealed many of the labour protections won through advocacy by decent work coalitions across Ontario — including the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign. Workers lost two paid sick days; pay equity between full-time, part-time, and temporary workers; and the scheduled increase of minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The bill passed despite persistent outcry, proving that Ford is not “for the people,” no matter how often he repeats it.

Following Bill 47, the Progressive Conservative (PC) government tabled Bill 66 in December, an omnibus bill titled “Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act,” which proposes amendments to several, unrelated laws dealing with childcare, environment, and labour, among other things. The PCs claim it will “eliminate red tape and burdensome regulations so businesses can grow, create and protect good jobs.”

However, the so-called red tape that will be removed crucially protects workers’ rights. The bill is at its third reading stage and will almost certainly pass in the very near future.

When organizing works: the Greenbelt

When it was announced that Bill 66 would open the Greenbelt for development, the PCs were met with strong opposition. The Greenbelt, an established protected land strip, includes more than two million acres of environmentally-sensitive areas and farmlands. That section of the bill allowed municipalities to create “open for business” zoning bylaws, giving them the option to override legislation that prohibits development in the Greenbelt.

Individuals, communities, and environmental organizations were active in opposing this legislation. A testament to political organizing, the opposition was ultimately successful: Schedule 10 of Bill 66 relating to the Greenbelt was repealed.

However, while Bill 66 has received significant media and public attention around the Greenbelt, less attention has been given to its labour implications. This lack of awareness is partially due to the fact that Bill 66 is an omnibus bill that makes changes to multiple pieces of legislation at once.

Though omnibus bills save time by shortening legislative proceedings, they limit the ability for MPPs and constituents to express their objections to specific components of the bill. Instead, they are forced to either support or reject the bill as a whole. In majority governments, omnibus bills become a strategic way to quickly push through enormous policy changes — allowing segments of the legislation to fly under the radar without accountability.

Bill 66 continues the attack on labour

According to the current Employment Standards Act, for an employee to be able to work more than 48 hours a week, both the employer and employee are required to sign an agreement and gain approval from the Ministry of Labour. This specific provision has existed for nearly 75 years in Ontario thanks to labour advocates. However, Bill 66 removes the extra step of approval by the ministry, allowing employers to ask employees to work overtime with little to no oversight.

Ministry oversight is, ideally, meant to keep the power of employers in check. It can be difficult for many workers, especially workers in low-wage, precarious positions, to say no to their employers when asked to work overtime. Removing a mechanism of formal accountability makes workers vulnerable to abuses in the workplace.

Current laws also allow employers to average out hours worked over two or more weeks, but only with the agreement of workers and approval from the Ministry of Labour. For example, working 30 hours in one week and 50 hours in another could be averaged to 40 hours both weeks — and would thus not be considered ‘overtime.’

Bill 66 scraps the requirement for overtime averaging to be approved by the Ministry of Labour. Without oversight, employers are sure to take advantage of this loophole by avoiding paying workers time-and-a-half overtime pay.

When the Ford government says it wants to get rid of ‘red tape,’ what it really means is that it wants to give the green light to employers to place their bottom line above workers’ safety. Agreements between employers and workers are shaped by a clear power imbalance, in which workers are beholden to the whims of their boss, especially if they are relying on a paycheck to put food on the table.

Students are at risk

Students trying to make ends meet by working in precarious sectors, like retail or service, are especially vulnerable. As Ford’s policies, like cuts to Ontario Student Assistance Program grants, make postsecondary education more expensive, students will find it difficult to say no to a boss who asks them to average their overtime hours or work excess hours.

Bill 66 also scraps the requirement for the Employment Standards Act poster to be displayed in “a conspicuous place” in all workplaces. While this change is quite small, it is not trivial: it limits workers’ access to crucial information about their rights, making them less likely to seek justice if they have been wronged.

Lastly, the bill harms construction workers. Ontario’s Labour Relations Act has a “non-construction employer” provision, which means that any employer deemed to be a “non-construction employer” is not beholden to any collective agreement that unionized construction workers would regularly be covered by.

Bill 66 expands the definition of “non-construction employer” to include municipalities, school boards, hospitals, universities, and colleges. Workers performing construction work in these settings would not be afforded the protection that their union usually offers them. By allowing these public employers to dissolve collective agreements, Bill 66 effectively undermines the power of unions, hindering access to fair working conditions and wages.

All of the changes to labour laws that this bill proposes are discomfiting, but the changes to the Labour Relations Act especially belie a pattern of the Ford government. Ford’s Student Choice Initiative effectively defunds student unions by making their fees optional, undermining their ability to provide services to students and advocate for structural change.

The collective power of students to challenge establishments like U of T is threatened by the Student Choice Initiative, just as the collective power of construction workers’ unions to advocate for workplace protections is threatened by Bill 66.

We must continue the resistance

In moments like these, when another piece of Ford legislation claws back worker protections, it is essential to remember that making noise has worked before and can work again. Though Bill 66 will pass very soon, we can still hold Ford’s PCs and exploitative workplaces accountable by continuing to organize and agitate.

Indeed, many of the labour protections that we’ve retained, such as domestic or sexual violence leave and the $14 minimum wage, are the direct result of tireless organizing by activist groups like the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign. Students have been a part of this movement for decent work, and we’re a part of a broader struggle that is resisting Ford’s continued attacks on our collective rights.

In this political moment, we must not only remind ourselves of the fights that have been won, but also be vigilant in advocating for one another in our workplaces and communities. Under Bill 66, when employers no longer have to answer to the Ministry of Labour, they will have to answer to us: the people.

Vidhya Elango is a fifth-year Linguistics, Anthropology, and Computer Science student at Victoria College. Talia Holy is a second-year Political Science, Women and Gender Studies, and Sexual Diversity Studies at Victoria College. Simran Dhunna is a first-year student in the Master of Public Health in Epidemiology program at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. They are members of the U of T chapter of Fight for $15 and Fairness.

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