Breakthrough for poorest workers – comment – Breakthrough for poorest workers
June 06, 2008. Carol Goar

They told their stories until Ontarians listened.

They raised their voices until provincial politicians acknowledged the existence of modern-day sweatshops in Toronto, Mississauga, Oakville, Brampton, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Brantford and Windsor.

The government is finally taking action.

Last week Labour Minister Brad Duguid launched an inquiry into the regulation of temporary employment agencies. “The issues that have been brought to our attention raise concerns that certain practices of some temporary agencies may be negatively impacting Ontario workers employed in this sector,” he said. “We want to ensure that Ontario’s employment legislation reflects the realities of today’s workplace.”

No one is celebrating yet.

The minister has not set a time-line for updating the rules. The government has not budgeted an extra dollar for enforcing them. And the consultation period is so short – it ends July 7– that a major overhaul of Ontario’s loophole-ridden labour code seems unlikely.

“It’s a first step and that’s great,” says Deena Ladd of the Workers’ Action Centre. “We’ve been pressing the government for five years.”

Duguid kicked off his inquiry by releasing a 10-page consultation paper. It depicted temporary agencies – which recruit workers and send them out to client firms – as aggressive new actors on the labour scene.

A decade ago, they were minor players, providing fill-in clerical staff to companies whose regular employees were absent.

Today, they’ve expanded into almost every segment on the economy. They supply manual labourers, construction workers, retail workers, homemakers, health-care workers, information technology specialists and office workers.

The labour ministry estimates there are 1,000 such agencies operating in Ontario. Ladd thinks the number is closer to 1,300.

Most of the 700,000 workers who get their jobs through these agencies are immigrants, struggling to find a foothold in Canada. They dare not complain for fear of losing their livelihood.

Duguid has asked his parliamentary secretary, Vic Dhillon, MPP for Brampton West, to focus on four key issues:

Should temporary agencies be permitted to charge fees on top of the percentage of workers’ wages they take?

Under the Employment Standards Act, there is nothing to stop them from charging sign-up fees, job placement fees and extra fees for mandatory services such as for resumé writing assistance and job preparation.

Should temporary workers be denied the holiday entitlements guaranteed to other employees?

Under the current law, a person working for a temporary agency who accepts a job assignment is considered an “elect-to-work employee.” Such an individual may be required to work on statutory holidays at a lower rate of pay than a company’s regular employees.

Should a temporary agency have the right to prevent a client business from hiring workers it supplied?

Under the existing rules, an agency can charge a prohibitive “temporary to permanent” fee for releasing a worker to a client firm. It can bar its employees from taking a permanent job with a client firm. It can impose contract rules that prevent any exchange of letters of reference.

Should a business that uses temporary workers be liable for violations of provincial employment standards?

As things now stand, temporary workers have no real boss. They are contracted to the agency that hired them, but they work for the client business. When something goes wrong – they don’t get paid, they get hurt on the job, their hours are suddenly cut – they have no place to turn. Their temporary agency often refuses to take their calls (or folds). The client business says it is not responsible.

There is one critical question missing from Duguid’s checklist: should the Ministry of Labour beef up its meagre enforcement staff?

At the moment, there are 15 to 20 inspectors responsible for the entire province. Abusive employers can safely assume their chances of getting caught are minimal.

The fastest and most effective step the government could take would be to hire at least 100 new jobsite inspectors.

That is one message Dhillon is sure to hear in this month’s hearings. The other is that no one deserves to be a second-class worker under Ontario law.

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