Law Commission goes to bat for vulnerable workers

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Fri Feb 25 2011.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Finally, someone is listening.

The Law Commission of Ontario wants to hear from workers in precarious, low-wage jobs, the temporary agencies who employ them, the businesses that use them, the advocates who speak out for them, the bureaucrats who are supposed to protect them and the public.

No one has done this before. The federal government has ignored the emergence of a large underclass of vulnerable workers (roughly 2.2 million Canadians). The province has plugged the worst holes in the Employment Standards Act, but only to mollify anti-poverty activists. Unions have watched helplessly as the rights they fought for have been rolled back. Businesses have been largely silent, not wanting to jeopardize a good bargain.

The Law Commission’s consultations run from now until April 1. The objective is to come up with a set of legal reforms and policy changes that would ameliorate the plight of vulnerable workers and bring the province’s employment law into the 21st century. The target date is April, 2012.

As an independent advisory agency, it does not have the power to implement its recommendations. But they are taken seriously at Queen’s Park.

Since it was set up in 2007 it has tackled a host of difficult subjects — the rights of seniors in failing health; the division of pension assets between spouses who split up; the ownership of electronic health records; the fees financial institutions charge to cash government cheques — and put forward well-thought-out proposals. Several have already been adopted. This month, the province announced it was replacing welfare cheques with reloadable debit cards. In 2009, it incorporated the commission’s proposals on pension division into family law.

The impetus to scrutinize “non-standard employment” came from executive director Patricia Hughes. In 2008, she attended a Colour of Poverty conference at which migrant workers, temporary workers and new immigrants desperate to support their families told their stories. Convinced that part of the answer was better legal protection, she won the board’s approval to undertake the project.

The commission began by preparing an exhaustive research report. Then it drafted a short consultation paper, setting out the major issues and posing pertinent questions. Both documents were released last Thursday. Now it is seeking feedback.

“It is critical that we hear the views of experiences of vulnerable workers and employers so that law reform recommendations can be effective,” Hughes says.

The commission’s modest budget doesn’t allow for province-wide public hearings. But it is urging Ontarians to participate by phone, email, fax, handwritten letters or its online comment box. It will help workers set up focus groups and travel to meet them. It will reach out to employers who use temporary, casual, contract and part-time labour.

“We have to balance the interests of employers and workers,” says Mohan Sharma, the lawyer heading the project.

Deena Ladd of the Workers’ Action Centre, who has been fighting for 12 years to get policy-makers to pay attention to this issue, welcomes the initiative. “Any attempt to look at the increase in precarious work is really important.”

What distinguishes this effort, she says, is that vulnerable workers don’t have to beat down the door for a hearing, ask for crumbs or fear they’ll be looked down on.

The workers she represents earn less than the minimum wage, don’t get overtime pay and dare not complain for fear of losing their livelihood. What Ontario needs, Ladd argues, is a “basic floor of protection that no one can fall below.”

The Law Commission is not promising that. But it is offering to take an impartial look at a trend that is reshaping Ontario’s workforce at the expense of its poorest citizens.

(The research report and consultation paper can be found at http://www.lco-cdo.org)

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