The Ontario legislative committee considering amendments to a bill on worker protection and the minimum wage spent Monday afternoon and evening mired in stalling tactics as the opposition Conservatives pulled out all stops to block a bill designed to improve working conditions for workers in low-wage, temporary employment.
The Tories, led in committee by right-wing MPP Randy Hillier, filed hundreds of stalling amendments on the bill, all of which had to be considered along with the handful of serious ones put forward by the Liberals and NDP. The Conservatives said the stalling tactics were being deployed because the Liberal Government invoked time allocation – a measure that cuts short debate and fast-tracks a bill through committee and the house.
Time allocation only allows for brief presentations from stakeholder groups, and also prevents the committee from holding hearings around the province to hear from groups not in the Toronto area. The time allocation motion required the committee to finish its work by midnight on Monday, so it will be back in the house quickly for the third (and final) reading.
The legislation – Bill 18, Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act – combines two bills that died on the order paper when the election was called in the spring. Along with requiring the minimum wage to rise annually with inflation, the new bill prohibits temporary employment agencies from charging recruitment fees and other employers from seizing passports from temporary foreign workers. It also scraps the $10,000 limit on the unpaid wages a worker can recover in court and increases the recovery period to two years.
Earlier this week, Liberal MP and former Minister of Labour Yasir Naqvi put forth a time allocation motion to send the bill to a committee hearing on Thursday and to its third and final reading on Tuesday.
In addition to protesting the time allocation motion, the Conservatives also seemed to be deploying the stalling tactics in alliance with business groups, such as the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association, who oppose parts of the bill.
Meanwhile, in public hearings on the bill at committee last Thursday, workers’ rights advocates warned that the proposed bill requires urgent amendments to better protect vulnerable workers.
Deena Ladd of the Workers Action Centre, who appeared before Thursday’s committee, said she was concerned that Bill 18 in its current form does not require companies who use temporary employees to take adequate responsibility for them.
Currently, companies who hire workers through agencies are not responsible for any of the employees’ rights under the Employment Standards Act. If passed, Bill 18 will make client companies and temp agencies jointly responsible for workers’ unpaid wages and overtime. But as orginally proposed, all other worker rights under the ESA will remain under the purview of temporary help agencies that often have little to no contact with temporary employees once they are hired by a client company.
Ladd said: “[The government] is missing the boat if they don’t make sure that it’s applied to all standards, and in particular I think, being able to take an emergency sick day, (to receive) public holiday pay — just a few basic entitlements like that. How can you have the client company only responsible for wages and overtime, when in fact they control every single aspect of your job?”
Amongst the amendments voted upon in committee Monday night was an amendment by the NDP designed to make both client companies and temp agencies jointly responsible for all worker’s rights under the Employment Standards Act. A Liberal amendment didn’t go nearly as far as teh NDP motion but did add Public Holiday Pay to wages and overtime pay that was already being made joint and several under the Act. The Liberal amendment eventually passed.
Jagmeet Singh, NDP critic for government and consumer services, questioned the limited joint and several liability provisions propsoed by the Liberals: “Why are we limiting it to just unpaid wages? Why stop there? Why should it be the case that just because I’m a temporary worker, I enjoy different rights? The government is ramming this through too quickly. We’re saying we should be extending all the rights that Ontarians enjoy under the ESA, (which) should apply both to a permanent worker and a temporary worker.”
The Workers Action Centre also called on politicians to remove from Bill 18 a proposed grace period that would prevent workers from making wage theft claims of more than $10,000 for six months. The NDP also moved an amendment to implement this.
Liza Draman, a live-in caregiver and volunteer with the Caregivers Action Centre, also took issue with the bill’s migrant worker provisions. Although the proposed legislation will extend the protections that exist for live-in caregivers to all migrant workers in Ontario, including a ban on recruitment fees, the bill won’t require registration by recruiting firms.
“It will lead to more protection for workers if the recruiters (are) registered … If there is some abuse, they could easily be traced or tracked down,” Draman told the Star.
Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia have already taken steps to register employers that use migrant labour, to license recruiting firms, and to require them to provide a security deposit to compensate workers when recruiters break the law.
“Ontario has dropped the ball,” said Syed Hussan, of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. “This is the province with the largest number of migrant workers and basically the weakest protections.”
The Liberal Government bill is a very small step forward but much, much more needs to be done to protect vulnerable workers.
In 2013, the Law Commission of Ontario released a landmark study on vulnerable workers.
The report found that temporary employment agency workers work months, sometimes years, alongside co-workers doing the same job but for less pay, fewer or no benefits, little protection against violation of their employment rights and no protection against termination.
Temp workers earn 40% less than their co-workers hired directly by the company. They are less able to take sick days, family emergency leave, or vacation than their directly hired co-workers.
The Conservatives should be ashamed of their stalling tactics and the Liberal Government needs to be reminded that much more needs to be done.
Justice for hundreds of thousands of hard working Ontarians trapped in low-wage, temporary work demands it.