Labour law gaps hurting Ontario workers

An unidentified man looks for work in Toronto, March 5, 2009. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Part-time, low-paid, “perma-temp” or contract jobs. Last-minute work schedules. Safety violations, bullying and harassment. Juggling two, even three, separate jobs to make ends meet.

For many workers, these are the day-to-day realities. And Ontario — like other provinces — has seen an increase in the proportion of jobs economists deem “precarious,” according to Deena Ladd, co-ordinator at the Workers Action Centre in Toronto. 

“When you look at national statistics, you’re looking at about 40 per cent of workers in precarious forms of work, so I would say that that’s absolutely very different from what it was 20 years ago. And I would say that precarious work has become more of the norm rather than the anomaly.”

In February, Ontario launched a Changing Workplace Review and public consultation on labour laws to examine the increase in non-standard work relationships, such as temporary jobs, part-time work and self-employment. It appointed two special advisors to lead the public consultations. 

“Our government agrees with business and workers who want our laws to recognize the realities of the modern economy,” said Kevin Flynn, provincial minister of labour.

“The special advisors will engage with Ontarians so we can ensure our workplace laws strike the right balance in the new world of work.”

ESA gaps

The review is timely since gaps in Ontario’s Employment Standards Act (ESA) laws and their enforcement are negatively contributing to the situation, according to a recent Workers Action Centre report, Still Working on the Edge. 

“When you fashion labour laws with the old-fashioned notions of one job in your lifetime, working directly for an employer in one workplace, obviously that’s not the norm anymore. But our labour laws reflect that norm. So, as a result, we find that there is a lot of gaps in terms of covering new forms of employment,” said Ladd.

Temp agency work and part-time jobs have always existed, but more for the purposes of filling a maternity leave or vacation period, said Ladd.

“That’s no longer the case. Companies are using temp agencies to replace their permanent workforce, so you have ‘perma-temps,’” she said.

Now, there are workplaces where the vast majority of employees are hired on contract through temp agencies or subcontractors.

“Which means that the employer, the client company, actually has very little responsibility in terms of employment standards, statutory benefits, for those workers. So the laws don’t adequately address that. So you have situations where workers are working alongside each other making differential rates of pay and benefits because of who’s hired them. You have situations where workers are afraid to speak up because their contracts can be let go at a moment’s notice,” said Ladd.

There is also a long list of formal exemptions in Ontario’s ESA, she said. 

“What we found in our research was that the lower your income, the more your likelihood was of being exempt from basic statutory benefits,” said Ladd.

“Employment standards… (are) supposed to establish a floor. So when you don’t have that floor, when you have such large gaps, it’s a real problem.”

There’s a growing number of people who might be legally classified as independent contractors, but the terms and conditions of their work are such that they’re actually falling below minimum standards, said Eric Tucker, professor at Osgoode Hall at York University in Toronto.

“The question the (Workers Action Centre) report is raising is whether the ESA protections should be extended to cover people who are legally independent contractors.”

If employment standards protections were extended to workers who currently fall through the cracks, it could make a big difference when it comes to access to equal pay, job-protected leaves, emergency leaves and paid sick days, said Ladd. 

“Some of our recommendations are really about restoring the floor of standards. And then a whole bunch of other recommendations are about, regardless of how you’re hired or how many hours you work, you’re not being differentially paid,” she said.

 

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