Hot! Ontario’s Bill 68 falls short for ‘precarious’ workers

WindsorStar.com – Health
October 1, 2010.   By Avril Cardoso and Lindsay Stidwill, Special to The Windsor Star

The necessity for substantive protections for precarious workers is clear. Research has shown that precarious workers face numerous stressors such as low wages, job uncertainty and having to work harder than permanent staff. This is significant because of the growing number of people who comprise the temporary or part-time workforce.

Unionized workplaces are the minority so very few workers can rely on union protections. So it is unsurprising that precarious workers look to accessible employment standards to enforce their rights.

The Employment Standards Act both facilitates labour market regulation and operates to reduce poverty by establishing minimum standards for pay, work hours, vacation entitlement, etc. The labour laws and regulatory regime is premised on a full-time permanent job model — one that existed post-Second World War. This model creates a gap for the growing temporary workforce where 37 per cent of workers are not full-time permanent.

As the number of temporary jobs have increased, there has also been an increase in the strategies used by employers to escape the reach of the ESA.

Examples include the “independent contractor,” workers who are hired through temporary agencies; outsourcing work considered low-skilled and labour-intensive to intermediary contractors; or misclassifying workers as independent contractors to treat them as exempt from labour laws.

A disturbing characteristic of this group of workers is the overrepresentation of immigrants and racialized individuals. Do we really want a new economy without standards that exploits vulnerable workers and traps workers in the cycle of poverty?

The teeth of the ESA lies in the enforcement mechanism. But, Ontario governments have not adequately funded enforcement for the past 30 years. While there has been an increase in the number of workers covered by the ESA, there has been a corresponding decrease in the funding for this program, leaving workers effectively unprotected from employers who violate employment standards.

Knowing that inspections are scarce has a chilling effect on the protections that precarious workers count on. And, workers who are already vulnerable are left with the difficult choice of approaching the Ministry of Labour and in many cases putting their employment at risk.

The impacts of poor working conditions are far-reaching. Increased health care costs are a major effect due to the inability to take paid sick time and the high stress levels faced by precarious workers. Changes are needed. Ontario’s Open for Business Act was tabled by Sandra Pupatello in May 2010 and is currently under review by committee at the Ontario legislature.

If the act becomes law, it will make changes to Ontario’s ESA that allegedly responds to the needs of Ontario’s business community and streamlines the ES claim process while still ensuring appropriate government oversight of labour relations.

What the government fails to mention is that Bill 68 will make the Employment Standards claim process more efficient by making it more difficult for employees who are in precarious working conditions to seek government assistance with their labour relations issues. Under current legislation, if you are having a problem with your employer, you can go to the Ministry of Labour and submit an ES claim. Under the new legislation, you would be required to first confront your employer about an ESA violation before being allowed to bring a complaint to the ministry.

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