Sudbury

Workers, labour activists in Sudbury sound alarm on proposed changes to Bill 148

Sudbury labour representatives, politicians and residents raised the alarm regarding proposed changes to Ontario’s minimum wage laws at a town hall meeting organized by the Ontario NDP on Wednesday night.

Premier Doug Ford has called legislation a "job killer," but critics say that's false

Sudbury MPP and NDP Labour Critic, Jamie West, right, speaks to a room of around 20 people at a town hall meeting about proposed government changes to Bill 148 on Wednesday night. The meeting was organized by the Ontario NDP and featured a panel of labour activists, as well as questions from the audience. (Benjamin Aubé/CBC)

A handful of Sudbury labour representatives, politicians and residents raised the alarm at a town hall meeting Wednesday night about proposed changes to Ontario's minimum wage laws.

Sudbury MPP and NDP Labour Critic Jamie West formed part of a panel that also included outreach worker Mélodie Bérubé of the Sudbury Workers Education and Advocacy Centre, and Jared Hunt, a communications officer with the North Bay & District Labour Council.

The topic was Bill 148, which was passed by the former Liberal government in November, 2017.

It increased the province's minimum wage from $11.40 an hour to $14 on Jan. 1, 2018, with plans to see it climb to $15 the following year. It also mandated equal pay for part-time workers doing the same job as full-time employees and increased vacation time to three weeks after a worker has been with a company for five years.

However, the future of the legislation — or at least parts of it — are in question.

The incoming Progressive Conservative government stated it plans to freeze minimum wage at $14 an hour in 2019. Premier Doug Ford has called Bill 148 a "job killer" and recently said he wants to scrap the legislation altogether

On Wednesday, West argued the PCs are using a "red herring" by blaming Bill 148 for a decrease to the tune of 80,100 jobs in Ontario this past August.

"A lot of people had seasonal work or were going back to school," he said. "Also, people with two or three jobs became one full-time job. It became better for business to hire for full-time jobs."

He said he agreed the jump to $14 was "huge" challenge for many businesses to adjust to, but said the Liberals were forced to do so in large part because former premier Mike Harris' PC government froze the minimum wage for eight years while in power.

West said Ford's proposal harkens back to those days.

"If we have another Conservative government saying they'll freeze the minimum wage, we'll again have to pull the floor up," he argued. "You need people with money in their pocket to buy stuff to get the economy going."

More than minimum wage

West also noted that "68 to 72 per cent of small businesses already pay their workers more than minimum wage."

"They care about their employees," said West. "What you do [as a government] is make it so small businesses can compete and stay afloat, like raising GST taxes on larger corporations who are [paying minimum wage] and can afford to pay their workers more."

Bérubé explained that her role as an outreach worker at the Sudbury Workers' Centre entails helping low-wage, precarious workers when they're having trouble with their employers by filing claims on their behalf and through education.

Mélodie Bérubé is an outreach worker with the Sudbury Workers Education and Advocacy Centre. (Benjamin Aubé/CBC)

She said it's important for Ontarians to realize a potential repeal of Bill 148 would affect more than just minimum wage.

"It's also sick days, equal pay for equal work, which seems so basic. These are the things we're at risk of losing," noted Bérubé.

"[Ford] is sending out feelers. At first he was only comfortable saying I won't raise minimum wage to $15. Now that he's in power, he's saying I think we're going to try to repeal the whole [Bill 148], because he feels so confident that workers won't fight to make sure their rights are protected."

Hunt, who is a high school teacher and labour activist based in North Bay, is also a spokesperson for the "$15 and Fairness" campaign. He said the group has identified 20 PC MPPs they intend to lobby, including Nipissing MPP and Finance Minister Vic Fedeli.

"If we can show that contrast between what the people in the community want, and what Premier Doug Ford is saying, that's what the $15 and Fairness campaign is focusing on right now," said Hunt.

'It really does impact us'

The meeting ended with an open discussion and brainstorming session involving the crowd.

Audience member Nathan Boivin, who identified himself as an employment lawyer, noted that unions should consider negotiating aspects of Bill 148 directly into workplace collective bargaining agreements, including a set amount of paid sick days.

Among the 15 to 20 other people in the crowd were high school students Machaela Burcher and Katelynn Becker.

Katelynn Becker and Machaela Burcher are minimum wage earners and high school students in Sudbury. They're working on a documentary for school about the debate surrounding Bill 148. (Benjamin Aubé/CBC)

They're currently working on a school documentary project regarding the proposed repeal of Bill 148. They both work at jobs that pay them minimum wage.

Burcher, who is 17 years old and lives on her own, said she's been able to save up for a trip over the past year — something she said was unthinkable for her in the past.

Becker explained she's also worried that some of the workers rights that came into effect as part of Bill 148 this year could be taken away.

"Informing people about this bill, especially people our age, is really important because it really does impact us. Kids our age don't really understand how much this actually does impact us and how much it will impact our future," said Becker.

About the Author

Benjamin Aubé is a journalist based out of Sudbury. If you have a story you'd like to share, email him at benjamin.aube@cbc.ca