Figuring out where the truth lies – comment – Figuring out where the truth lies
July 02, 2008. Carol Goar

Ontario Labour Minister Brad Duguid has his work cut out this summer.

The government is just wrapping up a month of public consultations on the temporary employment sector. Duguid has promised to update Ontario’s labour laws to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation and abuse.

Two starkly different stories have emerged in the hearings.

The province’s 1,200 temporary employment companies, represented by a voluntary industry association, claim that a few bad actors, given undue prominence by the media, have tarnished the industry’s reputation. “If those companies exist, they are a tiny minority,” said Steve Jones, president of the Association of Canadian Search, Employment and Staffing Services (ACSESS). “Our members, who account for 85 per cent of the volume of business, abide by a rigorous code of ethics and standards.”

Temporary employees, represented by a non-profit organization called the Workers’ Action Centre, claim they are treated as second-class labour. Their wages are low, they are denied holiday pay and they can’t move into permanent jobs. “I was willing to sacrifice and worked long hours, including weekends and holidays on short notice,” said Sage Joehill, a hospital worker with 23 years of experience. “When I asked the agency about my pay, they said it was the company’s fault. When I asked the company, they said it was the agency’s problem.”

Duguid and his advisers will spend the next few weeks sifting through the testimony, then begin drafting reforms.

There are a couple of points on which both sides agree:

* More inspectors are needed. The Ministry of Labour says it has 144 employment standards officers. The Workers’ Action Centre says it has only 15 to 20 inspectors who make unscheduled site visits. Jones doesn’t have a number, but he believes the ministry is understaffed. “We all agree that there is not enough opportunity for the Ontario government to inspect and enforce adherence to the law.”

* Temporary employment agencies should not charge fees to job seekers. Some companies have a $250 sign-up fee. Others charge a placement fee when they send a worker to an assignment. The Workers’ Action Centre wants these fees banned. ACSESS, whose code of conduct prohibits “direct or indirect charges to candidates,” concurs.

Beyond that, the two factions have very little in common.

* Temporary workers say they must accept “elect to work” status – which means no public holiday pay and no severance pay – to get jobs.

The industry says there is no coercion. A few temporary agencies do designate their employees as “elect to work,” Jones acknowledges, but this can be corrected through better education. ACSESS provides its members with guidance on how to classify workers on a case-by-case basis.

* The Workers’ Action Centre says temporary staffing agencies make it extremely difficult for contract employees to get permanent jobs. Some don’t allow client companies to hire their employees. Others charge steep temporary-to-permanent fees.

The industry association says these fees are well earned. Temporary agencies supply companies with workers they can try out before making an employment offer. “Everyone agrees this is a good way to help match candidates to jobs,” Jones said.

* Temporary workers say they don’t have a real employer. When something goes wrong – wages aren’t paid, work hours suddenly get cut, labour laws are ignored – they ricochet between the agency that hired them and the client company. They want both businesses to be liable for violations of the Employment Standards Act.

Jones rejects the notion of shared responsibility out of hand. He says temporary agencies pay their employees, even when the client firm defaults.

Duguid and his advisers will have to figure out where the truth lies; whether to embark on a major cleanup or a modest rule tightening; and how to address the desperation that drives people to relinquish their rights for a paycheque.

The government is keeping this initiative low-key. But for those involved in the fight against poverty, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

When the link between work and a livelihood is broken, everything else falls apart.

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