Changes to overtime pay, environmental rules buried in ‘open-for-business’ bill

By Cristina Howorun

It’s supposed to open Ontario’s doors for business – but critics say the Ford government’s Act to Restore Ontario’s Competitiveness is opening the door to worker abuse and environmental damage.

Introduced in December and currently being debated by provincial politicians, Bill 66 is a government omnibus bill that proposes changes to dozens of provincial rules. Among those raising concern are changes to employment laws that would allow companies to average the number of hours an employee works over a four-week period – potentially eliminating their overtime pay.

Changes to overtime rules

“What Bill 66 says to employers is there will be no government oversight in how you hire workers, and in particular what kind of hours you ask them to work,” explains Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers’ Action Centre. “It’s saying to employers, you no longer have to have approval if you’re going to make your workforce work excessive amounts of hours, or make them work overtime over four weeks.”

Currently, if an employer wants an employee to work more than 48 hours in a week, they must both sign an agreement and then get approval from the Ministry of Labour. This bill removes ministerial approval.

“For many of the workers that we work with, if a boss hands them an agreement and says, you have to work 60 hours of work this week, or even more, most people – if they want to keep their jobs – will sign it,” Ladd explains. “And those employers will feel very confident in asking their workers to do that, because there will be no government record as to who is asking their workers to work excessive amounts of hours.”

Ontario’s minister of labour says ministry approval has simply been an added step for employers, and that requests have rarely been rejected.

“The worker has to agree and the employer has to agree and so both have to mutually agree to (work) over the 48 hours,” Minister Laurie Scott explains. “What there was, was basically a rubber stamp by the Ministry of Labour on what was already agreed upon by both parties.”

But Ladd says that even if it’s a rubber stamp, tracking requests can still help to prevent abuses. “The permits at the end of the day will help us at least have some oversight as to which employers are asking their workers to not get paid overtime on a weekly basis, or to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week. That is critically important for inspections.”

No mandatory workers’ rights posters

The bill also takes away a rule that tells employers they must display posters informing workers about their rights on the job.

Scott says that employers still need to inform employees of their rights, and people access information differently nowadays.

“People get information from electronic sources now, more so. They still have to be provided by the employers,” she says, adding that employees need to sign forms showing they’ve been provided with the information.

The changes are some of several steps the government has taken – or aims to take – including reversing planned increases to minimum wage and recently introduced sick days, to bolster Ontario’s competitiveness. But Catherine Fife, the NDP MPP from Waterloo, says Bill 66 undermines workers.

“There’s a component of this bill that allows employers to no longer post the rights of employees in the workplace. They talk a lot about red tape- this actually requires a little piece of scotch tape and a poster,” Fife tells CityNews. She says the bill creates ripe opportunities for worker exploitation.

“There should be no loopholes in the legislation that allows an employer to not pay someone who is working overtime. This government and Doug Ford doesn’t think that’s a priority.”

Repealing toxic chemical reporting

The omnibus bill also scraps rules that force industries to keep track of the toxic chemicals they use, a measure the government also says will cut unnecessary red tape.

“They want to get rid of the Toxics Reductions Act. Since when did reducing toxin pollution, which directly affects public health, since when did that become red tape? It makes absolutely no sense,” Mike Schreiner, the Green Party leader, tells CityNews.

The Toxics Reductions Act is designed to “prevent pollution and protect human health and the environment by reducing the use and creation of toxic substances,” while telling the public where they’re used. Bill 66 calls for the act to be repealed at the end of 2021, and for the province to fall solely under federal regulations.

“It is first of all good for the environment and the fact that the federal government already regulates through the Chemical Management Act the exact same toxins,” Environment Minister Rod Phillips tells CityNews. He says there about 113 facilities in Ontario that manage these regulated toxins and that once the federal law comes fully into effect, the provincial law would become redundant, so it makes sense to phase it out.

“This is good for business because business having to do something twice is inefficient for them,” Phillips says.

Miriam Diamond, a professor of environmental science at the Univeristy of Toronto, disagrees.

“The provincial toxics reduction act does not duplicate federal chemical management plan really in any way.”

Diamond, who helped to usher in the provincial law and who worked on federal chemical regulations, says that while the intentions of the two laws are the same- to reduce the use of toxic chemicals, Ontario’s rules are unique.

“Industries have to table chemical use plans with the province, and that’s open information,” she explains. “It’s community right to know.”

Green Party Leader Schreiner says Ontario is actually one of the biggest emitters of toxins in North America.

“We should be strengthening the Act and not getting rid of the Act,” Schreiner says. “To take away reporting requirements, to take away your right as a citizen to know what pollution is happening in your community is simply wrong. That is not red tape.”

Last month, Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clarke announced the government was scrapping several controversial changes to the Planning Act which would have allowed municipalities to pass “open for business” bylaws that would have been exempt from certain provincial laws, including the Greenbelt Act and the Clean Water Act.

The second reading of Bill 66 is currently being debated in the legislature. Fife says the NDP will push for the bill to be moved to committee for further study, but with a majority government, further major changes aren’t expected.

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