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Ontario Law Commission recommends sweeping changes to protect vulnerable workers




A startling rise in “precarious work” — low-wage temp jobs with no benefits — needs to be addressed, says a report offering 47 recommendations.

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The Star

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The startling rise of low-wage, temporary jobs with no benefits calls for a comprehensive provincial strategy, says the Law Commission of Ontario.

Reforming Ontario’s outdated Employment Standards Act, more protection for foreign workers and beefed-up enforcement are also among the 47 recommendations in the commission’s final report, to be released Wednesday, on vulnerable workers and “precarious work.”

“The transformation that is taking place in the world of work is dynamic, and even experts are uncertain where it will land,” says the 175-page report.

“Governments, businesses, community agencies and unions each have a role to play to reach out to vulnerable workers who are finding themselves left behind.”

The commission’s report comes on the heels of a February study by McMaster University and the United Way that found that half of working adults in the Toronto and Hamilton regions have unstable jobs. Such “precarious work” causes household stress and limits people’s ability to participate in their communities.

The law commission’s report focuses on the estimated 22 per cent of Ontario workers in low-wage, unstable employment.

Workers in this group are more likely to include immigrants, people of colour, women, single parents, youth, and disabled and aboriginal residents, the report found.

However, it notes that the changes it recommends would help all people in low-wage, part-time, casual, contract and temporary jobs with no benefits.

The report, commissioned in 2008, incorporates input from workers, unions, employers, academics and advocacy groups, as well as a review of recent research on the issue.

It calls on Queen’s Park to make a broad policy statement highlighting the government’s commitment to protect basic rights included in the Employment Standards Act.

The act, which sets out minimum wages, statutory holidays, overtime, severance and termination pay, is riddled with exemptions based on workers’ occupations, their hours of work or length of service, the report notes. That has eroded the law’s “message of commitment” to workplace protection, the report says.

“It is time to update, review and streamline the . . . exemptions.”

The report also recommends more pro-actively investigating industries that have a history of violating employment standards — including service, hospitality, cleaning and manufacturing businesses, as well as workplaces that employ temporary foreign workers and other vulnerable groups. It urges tougher penalties for offenders and an increase in the unpaid wages workers can recover through the act from $10,000 to $25,000.

“Most employers do what they are supposed to do,” said the commission’s executive director, Patricia Hughes, who spearheaded the report. “But this is a message to those who do not.”

The provincial labour ministry should give temporary foreign workers better information about their employment rights and more support when they try to get them enforced, the report says. All temporary foreign workers should be given the same protections awarded to live-in caregivers in 2010, including a ban on charging recruitment fees, confiscating passports or penalizing workers for asserting their labour rights, it adds.

The report calls on the government to set up a minimum wage commission to advise the government on how to set future increases to Ontario’s $10.25 minimum hourly wage, as proposed in the 2011 provincial budget. Alberta, Nova Scotia and Yukon adjust the minimum wage by the Consumer Price Index each year. Saskatchewan and Newfoundland are considering such a move.

In light of the province’s current fiscal constraints, the report proposes short-term initiatives that would cost very little, such as mandating employers to provide all employees with written notice of their employment status, including wages and hours of work, as well as information about their labour rights.

Medium-term initiatives include a strategy to reduce precarious employment and improve support to vulnerable workers.

“An effective response requires a provincial strategy engaging multiple ministries and stakeholders in comprehensive, coordinated initiatives, following the principles of the (2008) Poverty Reduction Strategy,” it says.

Over the long term, the report proposes creating a “benefits bank” of pooled benefits for workers without coverage, and extending some employment standards rights to low-wage, self-employed workers dependent on a single client.

“The commission would like to see some commitment to doing longer-term measures when the time is right. Government should identify goals,” Hughes said.

Workers’ rights advocates welcomed the report, which they hope will keep up the pressure on Queen’s Park to act.

In 2008, the provincial Liberals pledged an additional $10 million annually to enforce Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, as part of its five-year poverty reduction strategy. But so far, the government has committed just $4.5 million, noted Deena Ladd of the Workers’ Action Centre, a non-profit workers collective.

With just 30 provincial employment standards officers engaged in actively inspecting 370,000 workplaces covered by Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, the risk of being prosecuted or even investigated for wage theft or other infractions is slim, she said.

“If the Liberals want to keep their commitment, this next budget has to include the other $5.5 million,” Ladd said. “It would allow the province to hire an extra 55 officers and almost triple the dedicated pro-active team.”

Halima Ahmed, 19, estimates she is owed almost $800 for hours she says she worked for a Toronto cleaning company between May and November last year. She says she was fired for refusing to work overtime during the Muslim festival of Eid, and was never paid for those hours.

“We want to work,” she says. “But we want to be paid. We want to be treated fairly.”

The independent law commission was created in 2006 to advise government on legal reforms. It is funded by Law Foundation of Ontario, the provincial Attorney General’s ministry, Osgoode Hall Law School and the Law Society of Upper Canada.

File Attachments


Economic sectors

Agriculture and horticulture workers, Occupations in services - Domestic work, Other, Food counter attendants, kitchen helpers and related support occupations, and Light duty cleaner

Content types

Policy analysis and Statistics on work and life conditions

Geographical focuses

Ontario and National relevance