Ontario Votes: How’s the “little guy” doing?

May 30, 2022

Election periods, for all their drama and rhetoric, often provide an important opportunity for reflection and re-setting within the voters minds.

With Ontario’s latest election campaign period concluding this week, the prevailing thought, I believe, is just how much the world has changed in the last four years. This is particularly true of our work lives. New technologies, new ways of collaborating, evolving perspectives on work/life balance, and a whole new vista in terms of compensation, equity, and employee engagement are just a few of the moving parts of this still-developing story.

Governments across the world are grappling with delivering legislation that somehow guides all this transformation, hopefully toward strong economies and greater market competitiveness. The Ford government stepped into this arena on day one. One of its very first acts was to scrap several of the provisions enacted by the previous Liberal administration, including a planned minimum wage increase and increased provisions for employer-paid sick leave. His quick action was celebrated at the time by many employers who felt the now-ousted Liberals had gone too far, too fast for them to keep up. It was a particular blow to low-income earners.

Several issues have emerged since that have placed this government in the position of attributor between employers and workers.

For example, during the build-up of Ontario’s third pandemic wave, the Ford government came under heavy fire for its position on paid sick leave, particularly in relation to front-line workers who faced greater health risks and had less flexibility to work remotely or take time off. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce even weighed in although they were very clear about who they thought should pay.  “Businesses”, they wrote, “particularly small businesses, simply cannot afford the additional financial responsibility to fund sick leave at this time. We hope to see either the provincial or federal government explore how to implement additional supports for when people need it most.” First hoping for a Federal solution, then bending to the intense pressure, the Ford government attempted a bit of a compromise, legislating up to three paid sick days per employee, between April and December 2021, funded by taxpayers, not employers.

The Ford administration returned its attention to the issue of minimum wage last year.

The previous government, in the twilight of its 15-year administration, bumped the provincial minimum wage from $11.60 to $14.00 in 2018, with a scheduled post-election increase to $15. As noted above, Ford cancelled that increase swiftly. Then, despite the global pandemic sharpening the focus on the situation for many of Ontario’s low-wage earners, it was against the backdrop of rising inflation rates and gas prices that the Ford government raised the minimum wage to $15 in January of 2022. His government promises an additional 50 cent increase this fall, if re-elected. Progress to be sure, but cast against the reality that within 27 regions around the province, even with full-time hours, $15.50 is below what is necessary to cover the most basic living costs. Here in Ottawa, it is estimated that workers need to make a minimum of $18.60 per hour during a 40-hour workweek to make ends meet. In Toronto, that sum is figured to be $22.08 per hour.

In 2021, the Ford government finally took serious aim at challenging its anti-worker reputation. In October, his government tabled the Working for Workers Act, which went on to receive royal assent in December 2021. This legislation introduced a host of labour-friendly policies, including “a ban on non-compete agreements, making it easier for immigrants to get licensed to work in professions that match their area of expertise, requiring temporary help agencies to be licensed, and requiring businesses to let delivery drivers use their washrooms.” The new legislation also requires employers with 25 or more employees to develop ‘disconnecting-from-work’ policies. In the words of Labour Minister Monte McNaughton, this legislation was the Ford administration’s intent to further “rebalance the scales between employers and employees”. He also said these new laws “leaves no one behind”.

If you ask a gig economy worker, that statement remains a matter of debate. 

Canada’s gig economy has been steadily rising over the last decade. Angus Reid Institute found that as of 2019, one-in-five Canadian workers (17%) were engaged in the gig economy. Despite the perceived flexibility perks of what is sometimes viewed as “informal work”, gig workers are much more likely to have annual household incomes below $50,000, and are far more likely than other segments of the population to be worried about household job security and are less likely to feel that they are on track to have a comfortable retirement. Recent Stats Canada data shows that much of the gig economy growth is concentrated among immigrants, women and low-income Canadians. Many of these gig economy workers were front and centre during the darker days of the pandemic, helping to keep some businesses alive while delivering goods and services to a locked-down population.

The relationship between gig economy workers and some of the big-name gig economy employers has become increasingly contentious. If you want to understand this further, check out some of the recent showdowns between couriers and international giants like Foodora or Uber Eats. Here again, the Ford government stepped into the issue cautiously. Within the Working for Workers Act, Labour Minister McNaughton introduced the Digital Platform Workers’ Rights Act, 2022. The DPWR Act establishes several digital platform workers’ rights including the right to minimum wage and the right to resolve digital platform work-related disputes in Ontario, rather than the employers’ country of origin. Lots of good things here too, but critics point out there is a lot more “window dressing” than redressing the unequal relationship between gig workers and gig employers.

For one, it separates gig workers into two distinct camps. Why are digital platform workers’ rights and protections distinct from all gig economy workers, or all Ontario workers for that matter, as afforded by Employment Standards Act? Also, the minimum wage gain was tied to “engaged time”, meaning employers do not have to pay workers for the time between when they pick up and drop off a passenger or delivery, not for any related time such as when they are waiting for a pickup or travelling between jobs. Still, it is a start. In the words of Labour Minister McNaughton, “It’s important that we have a foundational set of rights for these workers.” 

So, back to the election. Where does all this leave us?

“I think it leaves us exactly where the Ford government said it would be for the most part. Through its policy-setting, this administration leans toward the interests of employers and business. It charts a path that minimizes its labour market intervention while allowing the market (or in some cases other levels of government) to sort it out. If there is any doubt to be had, it is whether, as promised, this government stands for the “little guy”. It would appear this very much in the eye of the beholder.”