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Exclusive: Secretive cabinet decision limits sick days for autoworkers

Last Updated Dec 21, 2017 at 7:20 am EDT

It’s one of the most important sectors in Ontario’s economy, but thanks to a behind-the-scenes government decision, auto workers aren’t getting the same protections as most other people working in this province.

“We can build a better, fairer Ontario for everyone” was what Labour Minister Kevin Flynn promised as the province passed major changes to the Employment Standards Act in November. Those included a $15 minimum wage, domestic violence leave and ten emergency leave days for everybody who works in a provincially regulated field. Everybody, that is, but the auto sector.

A quietly approved cabinet regulation exempts the auto sector from the 10 days of emergency leave. Instead, those workers only get seven unpaid days for personal illness, the illness of a close family member or an emergency situation.

“I’m not saying anybody else’s job isn’t just as hard, but for me to have less days than somebody sitting behind a desk is insanity,” says William Murray, a 15-year employee at Toyota’s Woodstock plant.

Katrina Dicks, who works the assembly line at Toyota agrees. “It feels like [the government] honestly doesn’t care what our say is in this, and how it affects us. We feel discriminated against as opposed to everybody else in the province who gets the benefits of the Employment Standards Act.”

While Ontario’s Ministry of Labour enforces employment standards and led the plan to increase worker benefits, the exemption for auto workers comes from the Ministry of Economic Development. Sources familiar with the file say this comes after years of intense lobbying from certain automakers, but previous ministers were reluctant to bend to their demands. But in 2015, Ray Tanguay, former chair of Toyota Canada, was named a special advisor to the federal and provincial governments on the auto sector. Talk to introduce the special rules resumed shortly after he took the job.

“Somebody lobbied them and said ‘we need this’ and they quietly did it,” says Cindy Forster, the provincial NDP’s Labour critic. “They are kowtowing to companies over worker’s rights.”

The government says it’s trying to balance workers’ rights with the needs of the largest manufacturing sector in Ontario.

“In terms of the auto sector, our approach is to balance the rights and needs of workers with ensuring the auto sector in Ontario remains competitive in what’s becoming a fast changing global economy,” writes Daniel Bitonti, spokesperson for the Minister of Economic Development and Trade. “This was the impetus for the exemption. Sometimes, minor adjustments to a regulation like this one will ensure these companies can continue to support good jobs in Ontario for the long term.”

He did not address our question about whether foreign-owned corporations are directly influencing employment standards.

Ontario’s automotive manufacturing sector employs over 100,000 people; about 40,000 in the GTA alone.

“The auto industry greatly influences that province’s international trade,” says management company Desjardins in a 2017 report on the sector. “Auto and auto part manufacturing make up 2.5 per cent of Ontario’s GDP.”

While the province introduced this auto worker sick day exemption as a pilot project earlier this year, there is no end date.

“As we designed the pilot project, we worked very closely with workers, union representatives and company leaders from a number of firms,” Bitonti writes. However, Unifor, the union that represents most auto workers, has big concerns with the regulations. It argues that the exemption disadvantages their members compared to other sectors. Employees from two large non-union shops that are impacted, Toyota and Honda, don’t feel like they were consulted at all.

“I don’t know what the government is thinking at this point,” says auto worker Murray.

“I think it’s totally discriminatory, I’m going to have to table a private members’ bill to try to address this,” provincial NDP Labour critic Cindy Forster tells CityNews. “Here we were […] trying to set the bar equally for all workers in the province, and now we have this one group of employees and it’s not addressed for them.”