07/19/2013 12:25 EDT | Updated 09/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Premiers Must Reject Low-Wage Agenda, Focus on Good Jobs

In Canada and Ontario we currently face many labour market challenges, including the rise of precarious work, growing numbers of migrant workers, cuts to employment insurance and cuts to job training programs for vulnerable workers. We hope the new Premier will situate Ontario as a leader among the provinces and territories and will address these challenges head-on.

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WELLINGTON, CO - OCTOBER 11: Mexican migrant workers pick organic spinach during the fall harvest at Grant Family Farms on October 11, 2011 in Wellington, Colorado. Although demand for the farm's organic produce is high, Andy Grant said that his migrant labor force, mostly from Mexico, is sharply down this year and that he'll be unable to harvest up to a third of his fall crops, leaving vegetables in the fields to rot. He said that stricter U.S. immigration policies nationwide have created a 'climate of fear' in the immigrant community and many workers have either gone back to Mexico or have been deported. Although Grant requires proof of legal immigration status from his employees, undocumented migrant workers can easily obtain falsified permits in order to work throughout the U.S. Many farmers nationwide say they have found it nearly impossible to hire American citizens for seasonal labor-intensive farm work. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Good jobs are at the heart of healthy economies and communities, so when the premiers meet next week at the Council of the Federation, job creation should be a top priority. In Canada and Ontario we currently face many labour market challenges, including the rise of precarious work, growing numbers of migrant workers, cuts to employment insurance and cuts to job training programs for vulnerable workers.

Driven in large part by the federal government, these new realities are the result of a broad low-wage agenda that is driving down wages and working conditions for all Canadians. There are many things the provinces can do to push back against this agenda, protect workers and create good jobs. We hope the new Premier will situate Ontario as a leader among the provinces and territories and will address these challenges head-on.

This type of leadership is needed now more than ever as Ontario continues to struggle to recover from the recession. Unemployment has been hovering just below 8 per cent, significantly higher than the 2008 unemployment rate of 6.5 per cent.

The proportion of Ontarians who are employed also continues to lag and, in order to return to pre-recession employment rates, over 220,000 Ontarians need to be put back to work. At the same time, wages have essentially stagnated since 2008 and the minimum wage in Ontario has been frozen for over three years, leaving many workers living below the poverty line.

If the provincial government can overcome deficit mania, reject austerity and embrace the creation of good jobs as a top policy priority, all Ontarians will benefit. Austerity has been discredited and Ontarians are waiting for a leader with a bold and refreshing approach that puts people and fairness before deficit reduction and tax breaks for large corporations.

Take the growing numbers of migrant workers, for example. Justified by the existence of labour and skills shortages, for which there is no evidence in Ontario, the number of low-skilled migrant workers in Ontario has increased from 71,842 in 2006 to 119,899 in 2012. For many reasons migrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation, often working in conditions where their human rights and labour rights are not respected -- but they can no longer be treated as an expendable workforce.

Other provinces like Manitoba and Saskatchewan have taken matters into their own hands and Ontario should follow suit by banning recruiters or employers from charging migrant workers recruitment and placement fees; establishing a registration and licensing system to track employers and recruiters; putting in place penalties for employers and recruiters that fail to comply with legislation; providing accessible information to migrant workers about their rights; and providing the financial and human resources needed for effective and proactive enforcement of employment standards.

Without provincial leadership on this issue, the increasing number of low-skilled migrant workers coming to Ontario through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) will continue to create a downward pressure on wages and contribute to an erosion of human rights and labour rights for all workers. A 2011 Conference Board of Canada report showed that Canadian business investment in employee training had decreased by 40 per cent since 1993. At a time when we need governments and corporations to step up and do their part to train workers for available jobs, the expansion of the TFWP creates a disincentive to do just that. Providing employers with another source of cheap labour allows them to shirk their responsibility to invest in job training and higher wages.

For both migrant workers and other workers in Ontario, precarious employment can impact all facets of their lives, including health, family, and community engagement. According to a report by the United Way and McMaster University, precarious work has increased by 50 per cent in the GTA and Hamilton over the last 20 years. Today Ontarians are working hard for stagnating wages, in more insecure employment with less to fall back on.

In the face of these challenges we need the Ontario government to step up to the plate, engage in substantive dialogue and take action to make sure Ontarians have good, stable jobs upon which they can build fulfilling lives. We cannot afford to follow the federal Conservatives and continue to pander to the needs of corporate Canada.

Ontario should establish a Labour Market Partners Forum to assess the current state of the labour market, identify challenges and discuss public policy responses, especially with respect to training and employment strategies. Many successful economies, including Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec, have similar mechanisms in place that facilitate collaboration and dialogue between government, labour and employers.

This kind of dialogue has been lacking in Ontario. The Jobs and Prosperity Council may have been set up to try to fill this void, but includes only one representative from labour among a long list of CEOs.

If we can break out of the damaging and self-destructive focus on austerity, there is no shortage of policy solutions to be discussed by a tripartite forum in Ontario. In addition to new protections for migrant workers, increased resources for enforcing employment standards and raising the minimum wage, tax incentives could encourage corporations to invest the money they have been sitting on into training and job creation.

Further, targeted sectoral strategies could help Ontario compete in a global economy on the basis of high productivity and quality rather than low wages. Many of these ideas were captured by the Peoples' Budget, released by the Ontario Federation of Labour in the lead up to the 2013 Ontario Budget.

From July 24 to 26 the Premiers will gather at the Council of the Federation meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake. They have an opportunity to commit to job creation measures in their own provinces and join together to put pressure on the Harper Conservatives to shift away from a low-wage agenda towards a good jobs agenda.

We hope they embrace this opportunity because we cannot let the next generation down -- we need to invest in tomorrow's jobs today.