Ontario neglecting its most vulnerable workers
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
26 August 2012. Carol Goar
Ontario hasn’t caught up to reality in today’s job market.
Roughly 1.7 million workers in the province — 1 out of 5 — have little or no protection from bosses who pay them less than the minimum wage, compel them to work on statutory holidays without overtime and don’t allow them time off for illness, a family emergency or the death of a loved one.
Some of these inhumane practices happen within the bounds of Ontario’s gap-ridden Employment Standards Act. Some happen illegally because the rules are so poorly enforced.
In many cases, casual, part-time and contract workers don’t know their rights. Even when they do, they dare not complain for fear of being fired, blacklisted or deported.
Premier Dalton McGuinty is aware of the problem. He plugged the biggest holes in the legislation in 2009, billing these improvements a cornerstone of his government’s poverty reduction strategy. A year later the Liberals quietly enacted another bill — the “Open for Business Act” — that heightened the risk of reprisals if exploited workers sought redress.
That has been the pattern: one step forward, one step back.
What the government has never done is a top-to-bottom overhaul of Ontario’s outdated employment standards. It has never set a floor of minimum rights for all workers.
Fortunately there is a new thrust for reform. The Law Commission of Ontario has just released the first draft of a report entitled Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Work. It is a response to the plight of the lowest paid, least protected members of the labour force — typically immigrants, ethno-racial minorities and single parents — and to employment lawyers who lack the tools to help them.
The 176-page blueprint is comprehensive, thoroughly researched and forward looking. It covers everything from workplace health and safety to emergency leave for “non-standard” workers. It makes the case for fair, equitable rules covering all types of employment. It refutes business claims that temporary and part-time employees are “happy with their working conditions.” And it faults Queen’s Park for exempting the province’s most trouble-prone industries — agriculture, construction, restaurants, hotels, home-care — from key provisions of the Employment Standards Act.
The commission acknowledges employers face fierce global competition. But it argues forcefully that business interests must be balanced with those of the working poor.
McGuinty is under no obligation to accept its advice. No matter what he does, the report, drafted by lawyers with counsel from Osgoode Hall Law School and the attorney general’s office, will stand as a yardstick to measure his government’s performance. Of equal importance, it will open the eyes of many Ontarians who know little or nothing about this large — and rapidly growing — segment of the labour market.
The commission’s final report will be published late in 2013. The interim version is now being circulated for public comment. The deadline for comments and suggestions is Oct. 1. It contains 52 specific recommendations. They can be grouped into five overarching proposals:
• All of the exemptions in the Employment Standards Act should be reviewed. The government should cancel those it can’t justify and narrow those that are too broad with the aim of setting a floor of minimum rights for every worker in Ontario.
• The premier should convene a minimum wage commission, in which employers and workers are equally represented, to put in place an independent, transparent method of adjusting the minimum wage. Currently, it is set by behind-the-scenes political jockeying.
• The Employment Standards Act should be amended to require that part-time employees doing exactly the same work as their full-time counterparts be paid at the same rate.
• A panel of provincial officials, workers, employers and insurance providers should be created to explore the possibility of a “benefits bank” that would allow workers in precarious jobs to pay into a fund providing insurance for drugs, dental care and other essentials.
• The law should require all employers to provide emergency leave to their workers.
These changes would not drive up the provincial deficit. They would not impose an onerous burden on employers. And they would not make Ontario uncompetitive.
The commission is offering the government a ready-to-use policy framework. All McGuinty has to do is adopt it to create a 21st century labour code for Ontario.