Where the PCs’ pro-worker push is headed in 2022

Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives made what many viewed as an about-face last year by pushing a number of pro-worker policies.

This was, in fact, the government that cancelled minimum wage bumps, peeled back sick days and resisted for over a year reinstating more for workers sick with COVID-19.

So last fall when the Doug Ford-led Progressive Conservatives (PCs) seemed to reverse course — by doing things like increasing the minimum wage and passing laws giving workers new rights — they were met with both surprise and skepticism. There was less than a year until the election, after all.

But as Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, explains, the government’s apparent principle change was a long time in the making.

And, McNaughton says, these moves are just the beginning.

“When I became the minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development back in June of 2019, I made a conscious decision that I was going to be pro-worker and an advocate on behalf of working people in Ontario,” McNaughton said in an interview in late December.

Still, even after McNaughton took over responsibility for the PCs’ labour file, the government passed Bill 124, which caps pay increases for public sector employees. The legislation wasn’t McNaughton’s making; it was introduced by then-Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, Ontario’s current Finance minister. But it’s nevertheless viewed as one of the PCs’ primary anti-worker moves, particularly because of the limit it put on nurses’ pay during the pandemic.

Yet McNaughton says he “hit the ground running” after shifting over from heading Ontario’s Infrastructure Ministry by meeting with more than 100 labour leaders across the province.

And then came the pandemic, which McNaughton identified as the main factor in why the government ramped up its pro-worker push when it did.

“I worked with Premier Ford and determined that we’re not going back to where we were before COVID-19 hit Ontario,” McNaughton said. “It’s about building, building back a fairer and stronger province for our workers.”

Preceding the PCs’ larger slate of worker-friendly changes in the fall, in May McNaughton introduced the Building Opportunities in the Skilled Trades Act. The bill passed a month later and created Skilled Trades Ontario, a Crown agency replacing the Ontario College of Trades as the province’s modernized training authority for the skilled trades.

In June, McNaughton set up a special panel to give the government suggestions about labour and employment law reforms fit for how standard work is evolving.

Then in the fall, the PCs dialled up their policy pushes for workers. All parties supported McNaughton’s Working for Workers Act, creating Ontario’s first right-to-disconnect law, banning most non-compete clauses, removing previous Canadian work experience from licensing requirements in some professions, and giving commercial delivery drivers the right to use the bathroom at the businesses they deliver to. The PCs’ also hiked the minimum wage to $15/hour — an increase they cancelled just three years ago.

READ MORE: PCs’ ‘Working for Workers’ bill passes with all-party support

These moves by the government were viewed generally positively, albeit with some exceptions from opposition parties and workers’ advocates.

For example, the timing of the minimum wage hike was criticized as being politically opportunistic, which McNaughton refutes. He said the decision boiled down to what the government heard was labour leaders’ Number 1 request, combined with its concern over the impacts of inflation.

In talking about his plans for 2022, McNaughton repeated a few times that it’s his government’s intention to “continue to rebalance the scales” of workers and their employers. And while the PCs’ have led public opinion polls in recent months, the certainty that there’ll be a provincial election by June 2 means McNaughton has only four months guaranteed to work away at that plan.

One route he may look to take is in regards to workers in the gig economy — which are independent contractors who work for companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash. McNaughton’s future-of-work panel that he appointed in the summer made a number of recommendations in December for how the government could improve gig workers’ rights.

READ MORE: Ontario nudged to improve safety net for gig workers

Asked if the government would act on the committee’s recommendations, McNaughton said it was still reviewing them, but that it would take action on “a number” of its suggestions — which included others beyond those focussed specifically on gig workers.

He also added that, “there’s no worker in Ontario that should be paid below minimum wage.”

“Every worker should know transparently how they’re paid, (and) they all deserve a pay stub, and we’ll be making sure that those things are in place for all workers,” McNaughton said.

Along with bringing in more of these reforms, it’s another of McNaughton’s top priorities to continue promoting the skilled trades as a career path, he said.

He’s also got work to do with the federal government.

The two governments’ immigration deal is also expiring in November, and McNaughton has been negotiating on Ontario’s behalf. The PCs also want to double the number of immigrants Ontario selects through the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program each year from 9,000 to 18,000, which Ottawa would have to agree to.

“(Federal Immigration) Minister (Sean) Fraser and I get along well, and he has certainly acknowledged the challenges of labour shortages and how immigration can be used to resolve part of that,” McNaughton said.

His sense about the negotiations right now?

“We’re heading in the right direction.”

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