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The Progressive Economics Forum

Ontario’s Labour Mobility Act

Earlier this year, the Ontario government introduced a bill to give legal force to recent Agreement on Internal Trade amendments. The usual suspects – the union movement, the Council of Canadians, etc. – requested public hearings. After months of stonewalling, the government announced on December 1 that there would be one day of hearings on December 3.

This process was overshadowed by the HST hearings, which began on the same day. However, the transcripts are worth a look. Below is a lightly edited version of my testimony.

By tightly controlling the timing, the government had the upper hand in arranging appearances by any supporters of the Ontario Labour Mobility Act. So, the fact that no one testified in its favour is telling.

Eight labour and professional organizations indicated that this legislation is not needed and risks undermining the province’s occupational-certification standards. The College of Physicians and Surgeons even suggested that it would “put patients at risk and compromise their safety.”

Only one organization, the Certified General Accountants (CGAs), supported the bill’s general thrust. Not surprisingly, they oppose Ontario’s rule that only Chartered Accountants may practice public accounting.

Since other provinces allow CGAs to do this work, they characterize Ontario’s rule as a barrier to labour mobility. However, they do not like the proposed Act because it provides an exception for public accounting, allowing the requirement for Chartered Accountant to continue. This controversy reflects the fundamental problem with a one-size-fits-all approach to labour mobility.

The government must decide which types of accountants may perform which types of accounting. This decision should be based not on some omnibus “Labour Mobility Code,” but on a detailed assessment of what training and which qualifications are needed for various sorts of accounting work. The government understandably exempted public accounting, and a variety of other fields, from the bill.

If the goal were to solve real problems, government officials would be working out specific solutions on a case-by-case basis. However, the actual motive is the political imperative created by Premiers agreeing to do something dramatic about alleged (but mostly unidentified) “barriers” to labour mobility.

So, one group of officials drafted an all-encompassing Labour Mobility Code. My guess is that other officials – those actually responsible for particular occupational regulations – then scrambled to add exceptions for areas in which this sweeping approach would not work.

The best possible outcome from such a process is harmless legislation that does very little. A worse possibility is legislation that forces Ontario to accept the lower standards maintained by some other provinces for certain regulated occupations.

My testimony:

The United Steelworkers union is interested in the proposed Ontario Labour Mobility Act primarily because we represent some workers in the provincially regulated trades. Of course, all of our members also rely on services provided by provincially regulated professions.

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to appear before this committee, but I also want to make an appeal for this committee to provide opportunities for more people to appear. I found out about these hearings toward the end of the day yesterday. I understand that today is the only day of hearings on this important legislation.

By comparison, I had participated in Saskatchewan’s hearings in 2007 about whether or not to join the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement. In that case, we knew weeks in advance that the hearings were coming and the hearings themselves lasted for two weeks. I believe that it would be beneficial for Ontarians to have more extensive hearings on Bill 175.

The United Steelworkers union strongly supports labour mobility between Canadian provinces. Indeed, a very high degree of labour mobility already exists between provinces and we would be happy to support efforts to enhance that mobility by developing higher occupational standards acceptable to even more Canadian jurisdictions. However, Bill 175 is not needed to achieve labour mobility and risks undermining Ontario’s occupational certification standards.

The government has not explained why this legislation is required. To demonstrate that labour mobility is a significant problem for Ontario, one would have to do three things. First, one would need to demonstrate that there are shortages of workers in provincially regulated trades and professions. Second, one would need to identify barriers to labour mobility within those trades and professions. Third, one would need to show that the labour shortages are caused by these barriers.

There is very little evidence of labour shortages in provincially regulated occupations. Certainly, there is no overall shortage of labour in Ontario. The province currently has 669,000 officially unemployed workers, the largest number of unemployed workers ever in the history of Ontario.

I have never seen a list of alleged barriers to labour mobility within regulated occupations. In fact, we already have many proactive programs designed to facilitate labour mobility. Of course, we have the Red Seal program in the skilled trades.

Quebec is not part of the Red Seal program, but Ontario already has a separate agreement with Quebec for the construction trades. Most regulated professions outside of the skilled trades are already subject to mutual recognition agreements, through which professional associations have negotiated compatible standards between different provinces.

There are very few, if any, remaining barriers to labour mobility and there is no indication of any such barriers causing labour shortages. Yet the proposed Ontario Labour Mobility Act is a sweeping, omnibus piece of legislation that would cover all provincially regulated occupations and apply financial penalties of up to $5 million.

Bill 175 is like trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer. I would encourage the provincial government to put the sledgehammer down, draw up a list of the barriers to labour mobility that are believed to exist, and negotiate – or if necessary legislate – specific solutions to those specific problems.

The proposed Ontario Labour Mobility Act is not only unnecessary, but also threatens Ontario’s existing occupational certification standards. The basic premise of the bill is that Ontario should automatically recognize credentials from other provinces. This approach is a problem where other provinces choose to train workers to lower standards or choose to require fewer qualifications for professional certification.

This system of automatic recognition fosters a race to the bottom. Essentially, the lowest standard in any province automatically becomes the minimum standard for every province.

There is a further problem associated with giving legal force to the fines prescribed by the Agreement on Internal Trade for labour-mobility violations. Bill 175 also allows the provincial government to pass those fines along to professional associations, municipalities, and other regulators. The possibility of such fines will have a chilling effect on regulators in Ontario.

No official wants to be the person who made a decision that leads to a fine of up to $5 million. Under the proposed regime, regulators will err on the side of looser rules, and looser enforcement of those rules, in order to steer clear of these fines. In addition to Ontario potentially having to accept specific lower standards enacted by other provinces, there will be a more general erosion of Ontario’s standards.

In conclusion, Bill 175 exposes Ontario to some risks without delivering any apparent reward. A much better approach would be to address specific problems that may exist on a case-by-case basis and to coordinate with other governments in developing high, universally acceptable standards for more occupations.

Thank you.

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Comments

Comment from Rick Battams
Time: December 21, 2009, 12:30 am

Lol!

It must be exhausting to have to be so damned circumspect, so diplomatic, so careful in dealing with destructive, vindictive capitalist politicians. It tires me out just watching it. But I’m happy there are civil society soldiers fighting, in difficult circumstances, for me by making every reasonable effort, with great skill, to bring about and/or preserve the kind of society that works for everyone and not just a minority.

Part of me would like to just see experts like Weir tell the troublemakers where to go. And I hate bad language!

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