Committee hearings on changes to Ontario's employment law end

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Beth Bedore wants to own a pair of shoes without holes.

If she earned more money, that's one of the first things she would buy. Bedore relies on her bicycle or public transit for transportation in Belleville, Ontario. Unsuitable footwear can be harmful for her health. But right now, she can't afford anything else.

She wasn't worrying about this when she was logging more than 60 hours a week preparing for product launches at Research in Motion in Waterloo where she used to be a technical writer.

That stress was nothing like what she faces now: what she calls the "looming possibility" of having to use a food bank.

Bedore was among dozens of people who addressed committee hearings held in July about Ontario's proposed changes to the Employment Standards Act (ESA) and Labour Relations Act (LRA). The government introduced Bill 148, The Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, in June. The proposed changes to the ESA and LRA include raising the general minimum wage from the current $11.40 an hour to $14 an hour in January and then to $15 an hour in January 2019. The proposed changes would also give all employees 10 days of emergency leave, two of which are paid. Right now, only employees at businesses that have more than 50 employees get emergency leave -- all unpaid.

The bill was referred to committee after first reading in June. It's expected to be debated, and potentially passed, once the legislature resumes.

Alaina King has worked at a thrift store in Parry Sound for more than a year. It's a full-time job, but she still struggles to provide for her and her three children. She knows the difficulties of working many part-time jobs, having had multiple restaurant jobs at the same time when she was living in Thunder Bay. She told rabble.ca that she's concerned about food or hydro costs that already can be "unbearable." The money for any benefit an employer gives -- even more personal leave days -- has to come from somewhere, she said. She hopes an increased minimum wage wouldn't cause her grocery bill to spike.

Bedore spoke at the hearing in Kingston, on behalf of the Poverty Roundtable Hastings Prince Edward. She supports the proposed increases to minimum wage, although she said it is still below a living wage. She knows the stress of precarious work. She's spent much of the past few years working in retail or at jobs found through temporary help agencies, until she was laid off. A few months ago, Bedore began receiving Ontario Works (OW) after her employment insurance ended.

The experience has "really pounded home that any of us are one layoff or family catastrophe away from this sort of predicament," the 51-year-old said.

But creating stable and sustainable work requires more than just raising minimum wage, labour activists say.

The government needs to make sure all workers can join unions. This means expanding card-based union certification to workers in all industries. The proposed legislation only expands card-based certification to workers at temporary help agencies, the construction industry and the home-care industry.

Allowing everyone access to card-based certification is the best thing the government can do to create fair workplaces, said Chris Buckley, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL). This makes it easier for all workers to receive the protections of a union.

Employers "want full control over workers in their workplaces, and they want to be able to dictate the terms and conditions of employment," he said, and this makes unions "more significant today than they have ever been."

Buckley presented at a committee hearing in Toronto. He said he felt the government's two weeks of consultations, with locations ranging from North Bay to London to Ottawa before wrapping up in Toronto, provided all political parties with good feedback on the bill. But he thinks the government needs to do more.

Buckley would like a separate job-protected leave for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. He'd also like collective bargaining to be changed so all employees at a franchise are covered by the same contract, regardless of the location where they work.

Bedore agrees more people need access to card-based certification, but she's not optimistic that will change much for workers at temporary help agencies. In her experience, she said, workers can sometimes be put on a blacklist or moved around from location to location if employers think they'll cause trouble.

Many businesses object to the increased minimum wage, saying that the change is coming too quickly.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

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