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Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce

Chamber concerns slammed at hearing

Concerns about the impact Ontario’s proposed minimum wage hike could have on businesses were described as too pessimistic and “a bit too one-sided,” during a hearing to discuss the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act 2017, Wednesday.

“The only thing I’m struck with was just your negative pessimism about Niagara and Ontario,” Ontario’s parliamentary assistant to the minister of labour MPP Mike Colle told Mishka Balsom, Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer.

“You make it sound as if we’re in some kind of recession or something.”

Colle, a Liberal MPP from Eglinton-Lawrence, chastised Balsom following her presentation during a hearing of the province’s Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs to discuss Bill 148.

The GNCC was one of 19 organizations and individuals scheduled to provided input during the hearing at the Sheraton on the Falls Hotel to discuss pending legislation that would – among other changes – increase the minimum wage to $15/hour by 2019. The hearing is one of 10 similar meetings scheduled throughout the province, garnering public input about the pending legislation.

While labour groups asked the government representatives to make additions to the legislation, increasing the protection for workers, Balsom and representatives of other business groups shared concerns about the “devastating” impact increased costs will have across the province.

Balsom told committee members that the minimum wage increase was decided upon “without the necessary Ontario-based research and without quantifying the economic impact – especially the impact on unemployment and price inflation.”

She said profit margins in the accommodations, food services and the retail sectors are “simply not large enough to absorb increases so large and so rapid.”

Those sectors, she said, collectively provide jobs for about 60,000 people in Niagara, and provincial government studies have shown that for every 10 per cent increase in the minimum wage, there is a three to six per cent increase in youth unemployment.

“That means thousands of unemployed youth in Niagara.”

The government also has no apparent plans “to mitigate the price increases or unemployment that will result from the legislation.”

Other jurisdictions considering $15 minimum wages, such as Seattle and California will take up to five years to implement their plans.

“Ontario will do the bulk in seven months,” she said.

Meanwhile, Balsom said Ontario businesses are already seeing accumulative increases as a result of other provincial policies, while facing increasing real estate prices and concerns about potential changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Colle, however, said Ontario leads the G7 in growth, and is a top destination for direct foreign investment.

“Unemployment rates are going in the right direction – they’re getting lower,” he said. “It’s not all bad. I just think we have got to promote our cities like Niagara Falls, which is an incredible iconic city in our province. We have great people here.”

He said he can accept criticism, but Balsom was “a bit too one-sided for a chamber of commerce.”

Balsom replied, saying the province remains “vulnerable” despite indications that consumer spending is increasing.

“It does look like consumer activity is high, but it’s due to the cost of living,” she said.

“We’re asking the government to take that into consideration.”

Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MPP John Yakabuski said he was “a little surprised” by Colle’s “attack on the Chamber, whose job it is to represent their members.”

“Maybe they should have consulted the Chamber in advance of bringing forth this legislation,” the Progressive Conservative said. “Maybe they could have done an economic analysis, which the Chamber has been calling for since the introduction of this bill.”

Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff, a Progressive Conservative, pointed out that despite hopes that increased wages would mean more local spending, an increasing number of people are instead shopping online.

“They’re not spending it in local mom and pop shops like they (the Liberal government) likes to think,” Oosterhoff said.

Balsom said that part of the reason the Chamber is advocating for more research about the economic impact the new legislation would have.

Other business representatives expressed similar concerns during the hearing.

Food and Beverage Ontario chief executive officer Norm Beal, for instance, said Niagara’s wine industry is leading the region.

If Bill 148 is passed, “one stroke of the pen will wipe them out.”

Labour group representatives, however, said the legislation doesn’t go far enough to address the needs of workers.

Barry Conway from the Niagara District CUPE Council, as well as representatives of other unions, urged the government to permit card check certification for all labour groups within Bill 148 – a system that allows a workforce to unionize if a majority of workers sign cards rather than holding a formal vote.

Conway said permitting card check certification would increase the province’s union density, and make it easier for workers to fight for fair contracts.

“This would hopefully allow for growth among the middle class,” he said.

The unions also pushed for the inclusion of anti-scab legislation.

“Nobody goes on strike for no reason. People go on strike because there’s not fairness in the workplace or growing workplace inequality,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the government to protect workers that decide to go on strike.”

Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates said he was “surprised and shocked” that the anti-scab legislation was not included in the bill.

The New Democrat said a recent 10-month strike by Care Partners – a private home care service – illustrates the need for anti-scab legislation.

Bill 148

  • Minimum wage, currently $11.40/hour, would increase to $11.60 on Oct. 1, to $14 on Jan. 1, 2018, and to $15 on Jan. 1, 2019.
  • Minimum three weeks of vacation required after five years.
  • Two paid days of personal emergency leave.
  • Equal pay for employees doing equal work, including any temporary workers.

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