Tuesday, an Ontario worker rights group released a report that makes sweeping recommendations for closing provincial legislative loopholes it says results in low wages, poor working conditions and allows employers to evade their responsibilities under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act.
The report’s authors, the Workers’ Action Centre (WAC), produced a similar report in 2007. The group says that if anything, things have gotten worse on the job in the past eight years.
According to the report – called Still Working on the Edge – the number of part-time jobs has risen much faster than that of full-time jobs. Moreover, many people are trapped in part-time work but would rather be working full-time. Since the last recession in 2008-9, many of Ontario’s full-time, better-paid jobs have been permanently lost. Moreover, new full-time job growth is taking place in lower-paid sectors of the economy.
The report says while politicians and business leaders don’t want to admit it, Ontario is developing a low-wage economy. In 2014, 33 percent of workers had low wages compared to only 22 percent a decade earlier.
The timing of the report is clearly designed to put pressure on the Wynne government to make badly needed workplace reforms.
On February 17, the Ontario government launched its “Changing Workplace Review”. The objective of the review is to identify potential labour relations and employment standards legislative reforms. The review gives the Ontario Government the opportunity to address precisely the problems detailed in the WAC report: namely the gaps in legislative protections that allow for low wages, sub-standard working conditions and the exploitation of many of Ontario’s temporary and migrant workers.
Two outside advisors are leading the study: C. Michael Mitchell, formerly of union-side law firm Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP, and the Honourable John C. Murray, a former justice of the Ontario Superior Court and prominent management-side labour lawyer.
While the review shows promise, the real question is whether the Wynne government is willing to stand up to groups such as the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and the Retail Council of Canada, all of whom have historically fought tooth and nail against any changes that would strengthen workplace protection. These and other business groups – such as the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters – can be counted on to fiercely oppose the kinds of legislative changes the Workers’ Action Centre is calling for.
According to the Centre, the report seeks to bring balance to labour market regulation and provide ways to rebuild Ontario’s labour laws and employment practices to support decent wages and working conditions.
The report identifies a number of key problems facing workers under the Ontario Employment Standards Act (ESA) and puts forward recommendations for improving the ESA. Reforming the ESA is essential because, for the vast majority of Ontario workers, it sets the minimum terms and conditions of work, such as wages, hours, vacation, leave, and termination.
According to the report, the following workplace problems need to be addressed:
- Serious gaps in Ontario’s labour laws create incentives for employers to move work beyond the reach of employment standards protection. Work that used to be done in-house is now outsourced to subcontractors. Employers hire people indirectly through temporary help agencies to shift liabilities to other entities. Employers misclassify employees as independent contractors to shift liabilities and the cost of doing business on to workers, who have little power to refuse.
- Temporary jobs, erratic scheduling, insecurity regarding hours of work, and lack of job permanence is creating substantial income insecurity, limited access to health benefits, and substantial challenges for workers and their families. Recommendations are provided to make work hours more predictable, healthy and economically secure, promote job growth, and improve leave entitlements such as sick leave and vacations.
- Violations of basic standards such as overtime pay and vacation pay have become the norm rather than the exception in many workplaces. Workers are being forced to accept substandard conditions. The report challenges the notion that the problem is caused just by a few “bad apples,” that only a few employers violate the law.
- The erosion of employment standards enforcement has shifted onto workers who have the least power. The report puts forth recommendations to improve workers’ ability to enforce their rights at work through an anonymous and third party complaints program. Recommendations also seek to improve job security through anti-reprisals and unjust dismissal protections. Finally, the report’s recommendations seek to improve working conditions through expanding access to unions and multi-employer bargaining structures.
- The question of “Fair Wages” cuts through the entire report. Fair wages is a fundamental issue in today’s low-wage labour market. Recommendations in this section seek to update minimum wage policy by removing exemptions and special rules that leave entire categories of workers, such as farmworkers, working below the minimum wage. The report also makes recommendations to increase Ontario’s minimum wage for everyone.
The report further says that Ontario employers routinely exploit lax employment laws to avoid paying people in precarious jobs basic entitlements such as overtime pay and even minimum wage.
First passed in 1968, the Employment Standards Act set the eight hour day and 48 hour work week and brought together other minimum employment standards within one act. It assumed economic stability and a labour market dominated by full-time, permanent jobs with employment benefits and steady wage increases.
This was also a time of private sector union strength.
But those are not the times we live in.
“Because of that, there’s all these huge gaps around non-standard forms of work,” explained the report’s author and Parkdale Legal Clinic Community Legal Worker, Mary Gellatly.
“In the absence of regulation, employers have been able to create increasingly insecure staffing strategies, which are giving rise to many of the problems that workers are facing today.”