Ontario Chamber of Commerce pushes for repeal of labour changes

‘Poorly written legislation brings no balance between labour and business’: CEO

Ontario Chamber of Commerce pushes for repeal of labour changes
Ontario's premier Doug Ford has promised to make changes to Bill 148. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Claiming Ontario’s recent labour reforms were “too much, too fast,” the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) is calling on the new provincial government to repeal the “drastic” labour reforms introduced by Bill 148, the Fair Workplaces Better Jobs Act.

The new rules have significantly limited employers’ ability to maintain or grow the workforce they need to be competitive, and businesses are experiencing real consequences from the “lack of stakeholder consultation and unrealistic implementation timelines,” according to Rocco Rossi, president and CEO of the OCC.

“Literally, the Liberals jammed together this incredible omnibus bill — in what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt at buying votes — without substantive consultation with the business community, with no significant economic analysis.”

As an example, it was only on the last day of the Liberal government when it realized there was unintended consequences to the legislation around statutory holiday calculations, he said.

“When (the Liberals) themselves have to pull back pieces on the last day before dissolution, that suggests to me it’s not a thoughtful process... We were raising those points; it was simply ignored. There was no change.”

Even the change to minimum wage — which saw the base rate rise from $11.40 to $14 as of Jan. 1, 2018, and scheduled to rise one dollar further to $15 by Jan. 1, 2019 — wasn’t included in the original draft and was added later, said Rossi.

And while the OCC accepts the initial 21 per cent jump — which members are still trying to absorb — the other non-wage elements of Bill 148 need to be opened up for discussion, he said, “so that we’re not dealing with all of these unintended consequences from really poorly written legislation that brings no balance between labour and business needs and, therefore, we believe, threatens future prosperity and the ability to match people to jobs.”

In the end, Bill 148 was much narrower than the interim report and subsequent recommendations, according to Rafael Gomez, director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto.

“Bill 148 was a tiny, almost piecemeal set of policies that the Liberals kind of cherry-picked to think what would maximize their own political gain, and then put through the minimum wage to get maximum political support.”

And during the consultations before the Changing Workplaces Review, “there was nothing — silence from the business community, they offered nothing in the initial round,” he said.

“They got caught flat-footed; they didn’t think the process was maybe going to yield anything or they were cautious and wanted to react to what was submitted. Even the reactions were tepid and weak.”

But Rossi said there was no substantive process where the OCC was welcome and encouraged to be there, and “it’s pretty disappointing for people to say, ‘Well, it’s where it is because business didn’t bother to talk about it’ — that’s just nonsensical, we had built an alliance around reaction to 148 which was simply ignored.”

Since the legislation came into force, OCC members have cut back on capital expenditures to shift monies to deal with increased costs, and smaller employers are particularly challenged by the new rules around scheduling, he said.

“Our hope is to be able to revisit that process in a more thorough and thoughtful way with substantive consultation and real analysis,” said Rossi.

“All it would do is status quo ante, so I’m sure that the programs that have not all been deleted, it would be a matter of some undos. We’re not talking about going back to Dickensian England, we’re talking about a couple of months ago.”

Ontario’s labour changes came about after two-and-a-half years of consultation by the government, following a process where there had been a decade of conversation on how work has changed, said Deena Ladd, coordinator at the Workers Action Centre in Toronto.

“Bill 148 came out of an understanding that our labour laws were very out of date, our wages had stagnated, there was a lack of enforcement, there were major problems that contract workers and temp agency workers and people who were really vulnerable in the workplace who relied on basic employment standards for their protections, they simply were not covered.”

And raising the minimum wage helps bring people above the poverty line, she said, while equal pay for equal work is very important when it comes to addressing the gender wage gap.

“To me, (the OCC is) continuing their knee-jerk reaction to any changes that make lives a little easier for an average worker. Again, we’re just talking about basic employment standards. We’re not talking about union collective agreements. We’re talking about things like two paid personal emergency leave days in a year.”

But Ontario has a very diverse economy, said Rossi.

“It’s not all banking employees in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) — we have people in tourism, we have people in agriculture, that are in areas that are heavily weather-dependent,” he said.

“To strip flexibility from those industries is to not understand that there are different needs, and that if you try to put a one size-fits-all solution on it, you are significantly disadvantaging by not understanding the needs of different regions of this province, and different sectors.”

However, the economic evidence has been positive for Ontario, with the lowest unemployment growth since 2000, and many businesses saying they’re flourishing with increased sales, said Ladd.

“The kind of doom-and-gloom scenario that was used by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce to try to create a lot of fear and nervousness about these new labour reforms hasn’t really come into being, hasn’t actually happened. There hasn’t been hundreds of thousands of jobs lost, hasn’t been total chaos, it’s actually been OK, and in fact the economic story is really good.”

In many respects, Ontario was not at the forefront when it came to these workplace changes, said Gomez.

“Quebec, in many respects, now has a more progressive labour and employment code than us and is doing far better right now. Its economy is really booming; Montreal has the lowest unemployment rate of any large city in the country. So, you know, looking to regulation as sort of either the solution or the villain is the wrong way. Yeah, we can definitely look to modernizing regulation but it’s not the reason or the thing that’s holding Ontario back. It’s a much deeper set of issues that have to be threaded together.”

The chamber’s request is short-sighted, he said.

“You get into this game of short-term gains and long-term losses and I think the chamber of commerce is doing the same thing on the other side, which is (the case) if they push for this, and the government wants to appease them and sort of be seen as being pro-business and job-creating and productivity-enhancing — all that is dubious, by the way, to repeal a law that businesses have already invested in time to adapt to,” said Gomez.

“It might give you a short-term win politically, but it just means the next government will then do something very similar... and you get into this game of pendulum swinging.”

“You have to think more long-term and strategic, and maybe have a discussion about the right kinds of ways to regulate, and adapt legislation for the 21st century world of work. I think that would be a smarter move by the chamber.”

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