Provincial government to repeal Bill 148, targeting minimum wage, workplace legislation

U of T under fire for membership in anti-Bill 148 lobby group

Provincial government to repeal Bill 148, targeting minimum wage, workplace legislation

Premier Doug Ford’s government introduced legislation on October 23 to repeal parts of Bill 148 — the law that raised Ontario’s minimum wage from $11.25 to $14 an hour and strengthened workplace laws related to paid sick leave, equal pay for equal work, and other workers’ rights.

The University of Toronto has come under fire from local labour unions for its membership in the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC), an independent, non-partisan business lobby group that has been a vocal supporter of repealing the bill. As a corporate member, U of T does not have voting rights but it can still influence the policy agenda.

Bill 148, titled the “Fairer Workplaces, Better Jobs Act 2017,” was introduced by the previous Liberal government in November 2017. The bill was set to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in January 2019, but Ford’s government has capped minimum wage at the current $14 an hour.

The OCC has taken a strong stance against the bill. The group cites claims of unintended price inflation on goods and services, as well as cutbacks on staffing and benefits by small businesses, among its grievances.

“In the months following its introduction, the Fair Jobs, Better Workplaces Act has had a visible impact on the Consumer Price Index, resulting in price increases for everyday consumer goods and services for every family in Ontario,” read an OCC press release from October 23.

Rocco Rossi, President and CEO of the OCC, said in a statement that “as Ontario’s business advocate, our position has always been clear: Bill 148 was too much, too fast. The compounding labour reforms and unintended consequences came at too high a cost to Ontario’s economy.”

Labour unions respond

The Ford government’s plans to repeal parts of Bill 148 have been met with strong pushback. On October 23, Ontario Labour Minister Laurie Scott’s office was broken into and vandalized, and the words “Attack Workers We Fight Back $15” were spraypainted on the walls outside her office.

Labour unions have been especially vocal in their opposition to the seemingly imminent repeal of Bill 148. Emergency rallies were held across Ontario over the past week in response to Ford’s plans.

One rally was held in downtown Toronto on October 24 in front of the offices of the Ministry of Labour. Local labour groups, including the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and UFCW Local 175 and 633 were out in force. Groups held signs with messages of “$15 and fairness,” and cheers included “Hey Ford — Stop your hypocrisy! Fairness means democracy!”

The Varsity spoke to two U of T labour unions, CUPE 3261 and CUPE 3902, regarding the university’s position on the repeal of Bill 148. CUPE 3261 represents service workers, and CUPE 3902 represents sessional lecturers and teaching assistants.

“We are so very glad we were able to negotiate $15 an hour rate effective October 1, 2017 with the University of Toronto,” wrote Allan James, President of CUPE 3261, in an email. “We need a living wage, but $15 was a start. We don’t understand how anyone can afford to work in Toronto at this rate of pay.”

“It looks like [Ford] is listening to the Chamber of Commerce instead of trying to protect working people in Ontario,” James continued. “University of Toronto is a member of the Chamber of Commerce and should be advocating for equal pay for equal work.”

Members of CUPE 3902 also criticized the university’s membership in the OCC.

“As a [member] of the Chamber of Commerce, The University of Toronto is partially responsible for the lobbying of Big Business which led to this repeal,” read an email statement from Jess Taylor, Chair of CUPE 3902.

“As a leader in research, The University of Toronto should know gains for workers improve the economy, the city, and its culture. As an employer, The University of Toronto should protect its workers and should treat the people who are educating students with respect and dignity.”

“This is a grave disappointment,” Taylor said.

The university’s next steps

U of T increased its minimum wage to $15 in January to coincide with the anticipated raise mandated by Bill 148.

“Earlier this year, the University took a leadership role on this issue and increased the minimum rate of pay for most non-union casual employees to $15 an hour,” said Elizabeth Church, a U of T spokesperson. “The $15-an-hour wage is consistent with the rates of our unionized casual staff.”

The university has no plans to cap its minimum rate of pay.

Waging war

Ford’s drive to repeal Bill 148 is an assault on fair pay and work practices for Ontario workers, including students

Waging war

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.