by the Kingston, Ontario chapter of $15 and Fairness
Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review (CWR) is long overdue. The last time Ontario labour relations were overhauled was under the Mike Harris government. After years of pressure, the Liberals have improved some employment standards, but there has been no overhaul of the “Open for Business” labour laws of the Harris years.
The CWR’s interim report admits that something has to change to free millions of Ontario workers from the trap of low-wage, unsafe, or unstable employment that has become the new normal in our province.
Unfortunately, employers and their associations are keen on keeping labour law changes to a minimum, as indicated by the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce’s comments in the Kingston Whig-Standard. The Chamber expressed concern about the possibilities of a simplified unionization process, stricter rules over scheduling, and the elimination of exemptions from Employment Standards for some industries, notably farm workers.
Yet, the Chamber expresses no concern over Ministry of Labour workplace inspection blitzes finding three quarters of workplaces violating basic employment standards.
Forming unions should be simple
Employers are not going to wake up one day and decide to obey the laws. Nor is it reasonable to expect the government to enforce labour laws everywhere all the time. Workers need the power to address such violations and grievances in a just and timely manner.
The most effective way to do this is allowing workers a realistic and simple process to form a union so they can exercise their right to bargain collectively. The current Harris-era two-stage unionization process forces workers to survive a gauntlet of employer intimidation and dirty tricks. This takes place in the week between union cards being filed with the Labour Board, and the Board-supervised unionization vote.
We should be able to form a union simply by a majority signing union cards. The bureaucracy imposed on exercising basic union and collective bargaining rights is astounding, especially coming from business associations and political parties who rail against red tape and defend freedom of choice.
Scheduling chaos must end
The Chamber is also concerned about new regulations on scheduling. But scheduling problems are common on the job and wreak havoc with people trying to plan their day-to-day lives. Those most affected by bad scheduling practices include part-time and low-wage workers, and people who work weekends, holidays, split shifts, and late or overnight hours.
Not enough hours of work, last-minute schedule changes, favouritism, chaotic and random scheduling, and not having enough time to sleep between shifts are all familiar grievances. Stricter guidelines such as minimum weekly hours or minimum notice-of-change times would greatly improve people’s lives such as helping people plan better for child care, and improve workplace productivity and goodwill. “More of the same” on scheduling is not good enough.
Equal rights for farm workers
Lastly, the Chamber of Commerce is also concerned about the elimination of exemptions for industries with ‘unique requirements’, notably agriculture.
There are two things different about agricultural work in Ontario: farm workers have no right to unionize, and the sector is now dominated by migrant workers who have even fewer rights than Canadian workers.
It is high time that farm workers in Ontario, whatever their nationality, have the same rights as other workers in the province.
The only ones who benefit from poverty wages and dehumanizing conditions are the agribusinesses (which dominate small farmers), and the major grocery store chains. Any concerns about higher food costs associated with improving farm worker rights ought to be easily absorbed if we had a $15 minimum wage.
In 1995, Harris declared Ontario “Open for Business” and set about driving down employment standards and our rights in the workplace. Twenty years later, the result is a low-wage economy with insecure jobs and no prospects of new industries coming to Kingston and other parts of the province that will provide stable, well-paying jobs for large numbers of people.
We need to raise the minimum standards across the board with higher minimum wage, such as $15/hour and better job security and working conditions. This will mean more money flowing into the local economy, benefiting businesses and workers alike, and improving our day-to-day lives.
We’ve wasted two decades walking the path of little regulation, low wages, and rising inequality. This economy offers a bleak future unless we struggle to change it.
It isn’t enough to wait around for employers and government to act. Ontario workers need to write down their stories and send them to the Changing Workplaces Review. Above all, we need to get plugged in to local campaigns to defend and improve workers’ rights. We recommend getting involved in local chapters of the $15 and Fairness campaign in a serious bid to rebuild a movement to transform an unjust economy that is currently open to business and closed to regular working people.
This is a version of an opinion-editorial submitted to the Whig-Standard. It has not been published.