Less than a year after Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives cancelled a scheduled minimum wage bump to $15, an expert panel is preparing to publish a report on how the federal government can better protect vulnerable workers — including the possibility of a federally mandated minimum wage.
The report, expected to be released publicly this month, could impact approximately 1 million workers across the country whose industries fall under federal labour laws, including banking, telecommunications and rail travel.
They could also have a significant impact at one of Canada’s largest workplaces — Pearson Airport, where workers have long lobbied for a $15 minimum wage and measures to prevent contract flipping. That practice sees employers subcontract out services and award them to different providers every few years, forcing workers to reapply for their jobs at reduced wages.
An April submission to Employment and Social Development Canada by the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC) notes that one contract flip where 300 employees see their wages “reset” could cost workers an estimated $900,000 a year.
Since starting at Pearson in 2006, control officer Yavar Qadri has survived at least two contract flips. One, in 2016, saw a wage reduction from $15 an hour to $13.55. Overall, he says wages at the airport are so low that many workers — from baggage handlers to flight attendants — juggle multiple jobs to stay afloat.
“How can our airport be secure when security workers are not?” he said.
Last year, following a round of consultations with workers and employers, Ottawa tackled some of these concerns, passing new legislation to give federally regulated workers three paid emergency leave days, scheduling rights that will allow workers to refuse last-minute shifts without fear of reprisal, equal pay for temporary employment agency workers and casual workers, and new contract-flipping protections that mean workers will keep their salary rates when contracts change hands.
“What we heard, time and time again, was that our federal labour standards need to keep pace with modern workplaces. So we took action,” said federal Employment Minister Patty Hajdu in a statement to the Star. “We introduced a set of modernized labour standards to improve work-life balance and ensure fairness for workers.”
Some of these measures have yet to come into force, and are still subject to “stakeholder engagement.” Contract-flipping protections are expected to come into effect this September; in a followup submission to government this June, TAWC urged the government not to give in to employer push back for a practice that has “devastated the wages and working conditions of thousands of working people in recent years.”
Measures to ensure equal pay for equal work for casual and temp workers are not anticipated to come into effect until 2020.
But the consultation process to create the new laws also found strong support for a minimum wage of $15 or higher in federally regulated industries, leading the government to convene the expert panel earlier this year to further explore workplace standards. Currently, federal-sector employees are entitled to the minimum wage rates set by their respective provinces, which in Ontario is $14 an hour. The report is expected to tackle whether the federal government should set its own rate.
“I think there is a recognition that the nature of the work is changing … are there labour standards that ought to be afforded to workers who are in non-standard forms of employment that they are not currently receiving?” said panel chair Sunil Johal, who is the former policy director at the Mowat Centre, an independent public policy think tank that closed in June due to funding cuts by the Ford government.
Flight attendants are one workforce seeking stronger protection from the feds: due to existing exemptions to the Canada Labour Code, they are currently paid only for time worked while the aircraft is in motion — which does not include hours spent at the gate, going through customs and security, or completing safety briefings.
“It’s quite shocking the amount of work that gets done without a dollar sign,” said Air Canada Rouge flight attendant and Canadian Union of Public Employees local 4098 president Robyn Jenkins
“People are just completely amazed at the whole system of compensation and work rules,” added Janet Dassinger, who is with CUPE’s airline division and participated in the consultation process for the federal panel. “People think it’s still a glamorous job. And it’s not. It’s a very precarious job.”
In addition to a federal minimum wage, the seven-person panel — which included Mary Gellatly of Parkdale Community Legal Clinic’s workers’ rights division — explored other measures to protect precarious workers, including access to benefits and the feasibility of portable benefits in a world where workers often juggle multiple jobs or short-term contracts.
In 2017, a review of workplace standards in Ontario commissioned by the Ministry of Labour, found that only 23 per cent of precarious workers have health and dental benefits, while only 17 per cent have an employer pension plan. Labour reforms implemented by the province’s previous Liberal government, which included two paid sick days for all workers, equal pay for equal work protections for temps, and stronger scheduling protections, were reversed by Ford’s government late last year.
Federally, concerns about the rise of precarious work are not new. In 2006, an extensive report to the federal government by labour law expert Harry Arthurs noted “workers in the federal jurisdiction tend to be higher paid and enjoy better overall working conditions.” But it also warned of the rise of part-time and temporary work in some sectors, and its impact on groups like women and new Canadians in particular.
If the federal government acts on the panel’s findings, Johal said it could send a signal to other jurisdictions.
“When the federal government acts, the provinces certainly pay attention,” he said. “I think this would be no exception.”
Sara Mojtehedzadeh is a Toronto-based reporter covering work and wealth. Follow her on Twitter: @saramojtehedz