Enforce our labour laws

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Mon May 16 2011

Workers at the bottom of the pay scale have long been among the most exploited. Their desperation to keep a job they can’t afford to lose makes them easy targets for unscrupulous employers.

But the extent to which vulnerable workers in Ontario are being ripped off by some employers, as outlined in a new study, is startling.

One in three low-wage workers has had wages unfairly withheld or outright stolen by employers, according to the Workers’ Action Centre report. For some, it’s paycheques that are short hours, for others it’s being denied vacation pay or forced to work copious overtime hours for no pay at all.

This amounts to “wage theft” and an indictment of the government’s ability to enforce its labour laws and regulations on behalf of those who need the protections the most.

High-violation industries such as cleaning, hospitality and construction are often the only places that newcomers, young people and other vulnerable workers can find a job.

When they are taken advantage of they can’t file a grievance with their union because most don’t have one. They can’t afford to hire a lawyer and even if they could, they fear that rocking the boat will mean getting fired. Many don’t even know what their rights are.

So a complaint driven system of enforcing the law isn’t good enough. Some workers do get back wages because of labour ministry investigations. But most have little hope of getting all that they are owed or of being properly protected from the next unscrupulous employer.

The province, for example, is in court with one firm over transgressions in 2008. But as theStar’s Laurie Monsebraaten reported last week, the company’s current workers also complain that they aren’t getting their proper wages.

To be fair, the Liberal government has plugged some of the worst holes in the Employment Standards Act by providing protections for temporary agency workers. It has hired 80 more inspection officers and has cut in half the backlog of complaints. But, as the Workers’ Action Centre report makes clear, more must be done.

It’s heartening, then, that Labour Minister Charles Sousa seems to agree. “I recognize that there are people still who are vulnerable and require support,” he said.

A good start would be for him to implement some of the report’s recommendations for change. When a substantial complaint of wage theft is verified, that should trigger a broader labour investigation into the company involved. And the ministry needn’t wait for complaints to roll in. Inspectors should more proactively target employers in high-violation industries.

On paper, Ontario has strong laws. But they need to be enforced in a way that offers real protection for the poorest and most vulnerable workers.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/article/991656–enforce-our-labour-laws >

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