Labour law review poses test for Ontario Liberals
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne as the Legislative session resumes after the winter break at Queen’s Park in Toronto, Ont. on Tuesday February 21, 2017. (Ernest Doroszuk/Postmedia Network)
For nearly two years, a potentially transformative review of Ontario’s labour laws has been underway by two experts in the field. Within days, they will hand their final recommendations to the government.
This is when things get interesting, as Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals decide just how far they’re willing to go.
An update to the labour laws was included in Wynne’s throne speech following the 2014 election, with the hope of addressing the growing problem of precarious work. But even the two experts running the review (longtime labour lawyer C. Michael Mitchell and former Superior Court judge John Murray) acknowledge there’s no definition of what counts as precarious work.
It can encompass interns, part-time employees, contractors, the self-employed and full-time staff. But it essentially comes down to this: workers who have little job security, few benefits and no collective bargaining power. People who feel insecure in their employment.
In other words, the review is aimed squarely at some of the underlying causes of the populist upheaval that has shaken the world (resulting, among other things, in the election of U.S. President Donald Trump).
Western countries have entered into huge free trade agreements and shifted from manufacturing to service-based economies. The rate of unionization in the private sector has dropped steadily, and the sharing economy is on the rise. Labour laws have generally not kept pace with these changes.
Almost everything is on the table in the review. Ontario’s business community evidently did not take this seriously at first, neglecting to submit comprehensive feedback. As a result, Mitchell and Murray decided to release an interim report last summer.
This had the desired effect: people were shocked to see the range of options inside. The report openly considers steps to make it easier to unionize, expand the kinds of unions that can be formed (everything from doctors and lawyers to domestic workers in private homes) and boost collective bargaining power. Some of the options would be a return to the early ’90s, when Bob Rae’s NDP government ran the show.
These are only options, and it’s unlikely the government will proceed with most of them. But beyond the union talk, there is significant focus on how to enhance protections for contractors and other types of workers currently given few benefits under labour laws. (Uber drivers, take note.)
Some businesses groups are clearly spooked. They created a new lobby organization called Keep Ontario Working, and took to the op-ed pages of the business press. “If adopted, the proposals . . . would make the province the most radical left-wing environment for businesses in the Western world,” wrote employment lawyer Howard Levitt in the Financial Post in September.
The completed review, with its final recommendations, is due to land on Labour Minister Kevin Flynn’s desk any day now. The question is what the government will do with it.
This has the potential to be very controversial, and it will be a test of the Wynne government’s boldness at a time when it is sensitive over its lowly polling numbers. Business leaders tend to have a lot of political power; non-unionized employees tend to have very little. Also, you may recall an election is coming.
In an interview, Flynn said he’s confident the government can come to a reasonable balance that doesn’t hugely antagonize business groups. But he is also determined to stay focused on vulnerable workers.
“We’re leading the G7 in economic growth, but that has to apply to everybody in our society,” Flynn said. “We need to have rules to make sure everyone shares in that, and I think decent employers understand that.”