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Labour leader starts campaign against proposed labour law changes

The Toronto Star, 31 October 2000

KITCHENER - If you work in Ontario, Wayne Samuelson wants you to perk up your ears because new laws governing workers could be passed by Christmas.

In Kitchener yesterday, the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) began a two-week tour of the province where he plans to talk to union organizers and activists in 11 cities.

"We're trying to get to every single worker," he said at the downtown labour hall yesterday.

The OFL is trying to build a network of workers to resist proposed laws, expected to be tabled before Christmas, that could make people work longer hours, cut overtime pay and make workers take vacations one day at a time instead of in week-long blocks, Samuelson said.

In July, a consultation paper dubbed Time For a Change: Ontario's Employment Standards Legislation, written by the provincial government's Red Tape Commission, suggested changes to the Employment Standards Act.

The Tory government says overhauling the law will make work schedules more flexible for workers and employers.

The current law governs the number of hours employers can make employees work, overtime pay and vacations.

Collective agreements reached between unions and employers can't have standards that fall below those in the Act. But some sectors, including farm and construction workers, aren't covered by the law.

Samuelson estimates about 20 per cent of five million workers in Ontario are not covered by the Act.

Under current labour laws, the duration of work for most employees is capped at eight hours a day and 48 hours a week. Employers must apply for a permit to allow employees to work more than 48 hours a week on a regular basis.

Overtime, at a rate of time-and-a-half, must be paid after 44 hours of work in a week.

The government's consultation paper suggests scrapping the permit system and limiting the work week to 60 hours. Workers would have to agree to work more than 48 hours a week, the commission suggests.

But the number of hours worked each week could be averaged over three weeks.

And Samuelson says the new regulations could cut into a worker's overtime pay if an employer stacks the number of hours worked into one week, then decreases the number of hours in following weeks.

For example, if an employee works 52 hours a week, he or she is paid eight hours of overtime under current laws.

If the new employment legislation allows employers to average work hours over three weeks, they could avoid paying overtime by having the employee work only 40 hours a week during the following two weeks.

Although the commission suggests employees have the right to refuse the extra work, Samuelson says workers will be pressured by bosses to work longer hours.

But Kelly Shute, a communications assistant for Labour Minister Chris Stockwell, said yesterday Stockwell wants to make sure there is better protection for workers who don't agree to work the longer hours.

"This is something that this particular minister is specifically committed to," she said.

Samuelson and several local union members handed out leaflets to passersby in front of Kitchener City Hall yesterday morning. He planned to speak to about 200 local labour leaders in the evening.

His tour continues in London on Wednesday and Hamilton on Thursday. The public meetings end with a meeting in Toronto on Nov. 9.

Torstar News Service