Ontario Budget 2013 tabled in the legislature on May 2, 2013 includes some benefits for immigrants and refugees. However, the continuing emphasis on austerity and balancing the budget will have an overall negative impact on these populations.
OCASI is deeply disappointed that the Budget fails to make equity-focused investments that would make a positive difference.
The government is holding funding for programs and services to less than 1% for the second year in a row. This is lower than the rate of inflation in some cases and would represent a cut for many. Ontario has the lowest investment in many areas of public service funding compared to the rest of Canada.
OCASI is very pleased by the investment of an additional $15 million over three years for Bridge Training, starting in 2013-14. It demonstrates the government's commitment to immigrant labour market success. Bridge Training has proven to be among the more successful labour market integration initiatives for internationally trained immigrants. The new investment would help to address OCASI concerns about persistent and increasing immigrant under-employment.
The Budget promises to move forward on the Ontario Immigration Strategy by setting up an Employer Table shortly (in Spring 2013) to support employers and improve labour market outcomes for immigrants. This comes out of a recommendation made by the Expert Roundtable on Immigration. OCASI Executive Director Debbie Douglas, and Provincial Director Léonie Tchatat both served on the Roundtable.
The creation of a new Youth Jobs Strategy resourced by $295 million over two years is significant, and is encouraging news for vulnerable youth populations. The Strategy includes $195 million over two years for the Youth Employment Fund to create employment opportunities, with a focus on youth experiencing high unemployment. We expect that employment concerns of immigrant and racialized youth will be priorities.
OCASI is disappointed that the Budget does not include any increase in the minimum wage. Instead, the government proposes to establish an Advisory Panel to review and advise on how the minimum wage should be adjusted. The Panel is to include workers and employers and is to report within six months.
As mentioned in our pre-budget submission, the minimum wage has been frozen at $10.25 for more than three years. During that period, the poverty line has overtaken the minimum wage and the number of Ontarians living in poverty has increased. OCASI asked the government to increase the minimum wage to $14 in 2013 to bring workers and their families 10% above the poverty line, and commit to annual cost-of-living adjustments.
The Budget provides ongoing funding of $3 million for enforcement of Employment Standards (ES), starting in 2013–14. The increase is targeted to hire additional officers and staff to carry out proactive workplace inspections. Vulnerable workers are named as a priority.
While the increase is encouraging, it falls short of the 2008 promise by the Ontario government to increase investment in ES enforcement as part of its Poverty Reduction Strategy. The commitment was for an additional $10 million annually. Last year, the government committed to meeting this goal by 2013. Since the announcement of the Poverty Reduction Strategy, conditions for workers have become worse. Immigrant and racialized workers are over-represented among those who are most affected.
OCASI is encouraged by the inclusion in this Budget of certain measures coming out of the Social Assistance Review. The Budget increases Social Assistance rates by 1%, and provides a $200 top-up for single adults without children, who are typically over-represented in low-income situations. Other measures include increasing asset limits, and more flexibility in the benefit structure that would allow those on assistance to keep more of their earned income.
OCASI is pleased that the Budget commits to providing additional funding of $30 million over three years to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO). This is a significant win, resulting from cross-sectoral advocacy to the Ontario government by diverse groups including OCASI, refugee lawyers and other refugee advocates.
The increase will serve to address some of the serious access to justice concerns raised by OCASI in our pre-budget submission. They include the impact of legal aid cuts on refugee claimants, particularly impact of LAO plans to cut legal representation at refugee hearings for many claimants, and cutting legal aid certificates for refugee cases by 40%. OCASI had serious concerns that lack of legal representation would produce negative results for claimants, and in many cases put their lives in danger.
May 3, 2013