Ford's labour law rollbacks are another blow against Ontario workers

Fast food strike and protest for a $15/hour minimum wage. Photo: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

Announcing plans for new labour legislation, a beaming Premier Doug Ford assured us earlier this month that "we're going to make sure we're competitive around the world."

At first glance, that statement might lead us to believe the premier, especially given his commitment to act "for the people," was vowing Ontario would make sure its workers got as good a deal, or better, than workers elsewhere in the world.

But that's not what he meant at all.

In fact, he meant just the opposite -- that he would ensure our workers got a worse deal than workers elsewhere.

That is the perverse thinking behind the economic philosophy that has dominated North American politics in recent decades: that workers must offer themselves up at the lowest possible wage with the fewest possible benefits in order to create an attractive investment climate for businesses that might otherwise move elsewhere.

Despite the persistence of this theory, there's little evidence to support it: most low-wage countries remain that way, while the high-wage nations of Europe and Scandinavia continue to excel in global competitiveness. Undeterred, Doug Ford is rolling back labour legislation, updated last year after a two-year review with extensive public consultations, and replacing it with a bill hastily assembled behind closed doors, with heavy business input.

Gone is the minimum wage hike to $15 an hour. So, just like that, faster than you can say "for the people," Ford has cancelled what amounted to a $2,000 annual pay increase that was headed for the pockets of the lowest-paid people.

He's also cancelling the two paid sick days a year, even though 145 countries (most of the world's nations) already offer some form of paid sick leave. Think how competitive we'll be without it! That should give us a leg-up on Guatemala and Botswana!

Business commentators argued that the higher minimum wage would drive businesses elsewhere, presumably leaving Canadian customers happily ordering their coffee-to-go from far-away places. Commentators made the same argument last year, when the minimum wage was raised to $14 an hour. However, Ontario's unemployment rate fell to 5.4 per cent, its lowest level in 18 years.

Killing the $15 minimum wage is another victory in the long-running class war, sometimes called neoliberalism, in which business-funded think-tanks have shaped the public debate, convincing us we must design our economy to please business interests.

And we've done that, slashing taxes on corporations and the rich, signing trade deals designed to protect corporate rights, weakening labour laws and making it harder for workers to organize into unions.

The result has been ... well, pretty much what you'd expect when all economic laws have been redesigned to benefit the elite.

In his new book, The Age of Increasing Inequality, Dalhousie University economist Lars Osberg notes that the incomes of the top 1 per cent have doubled since 1982.

Meanwhile, the bottom half of Canadians, some 13.5 million people, are earning less than they did in 1982 (in inflation-adjusted dollars), Osberg shows. Only Canada's social safety net -- child, disability, welfare benefits, etc. -- prevents them from actually being worse off than they were in the early 1980s.

Of course, the neoliberals have been shredding the safety net as well.

Ford has moved quickly to diminish Ontario's safety net, ending the Basic Income project and making cuts to social assistance. Among other things, it now reportedly takes longer for those on disability to qualify for a wheelchair. Ford is planning an additional $6 billion in spending cuts.

In an analysis done before last spring's election, economic consultant Edgardo Sepulveda projected that the NDP's platform would reduce inequality "moderately" and the Liberal platform would reduce it "slightly," but Ford's PC platform would move the province in exactly the opposite direction, increasing inequality "significantly."

Given the speed and scope of Ford's changes already, Sepulveda now believes that inequality in the province will increase "even more and faster."

So, after decades of losing ground to the elite, millions of Canadians will find themselves falling behind deeper and faster under Doug Ford.

On the bright side, think of how competitive we'll be. In the race to the bottom, nobody beats Ontario!

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author. Her book Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths was among the books selected by the Literary Review of Canada as the "25 most influential Canadian books of the past 25 years." This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

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