Step backward in labour laws

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial –
Published On Fri Aug 06 2010

Ontario’s 700,000 temporary workers – the poorest, most insecure members of the labour force – were jubilant when Premier Dalton McGuinty included them in his poverty strategy.

Fifteen months ago, the McGuinty government beefed up provincial employment standards, guaranteeing temp workers the right to holiday, severance and termination pay. The government also pledged to spend $10 million hiring new enforcement officers to protect precarious workers.

Now the temporary workers feel as if their victory is being snatched away, as the government proposes to “modernize” the Employment Standards Act. Under new rules, workers would be required to confront their boss about unpaid wages, overtime or other breaches of the law before filing a claim with the labor ministry.

This is one of dozens of changes – in everything from the Environmental Protection Act to the Highway Traffic Act – contained in Bill 68, known as the “Open for Business Act.” It was introduced in May and approved in principle in June.

This week, the legislative committee on finance and economic affairs held a rare summer sitting to review the bill. The government intends to seek final approval from MPPs in the fall.

“This is like asking someone who’s had their purse stolen to go and confront the thief before they’re allowed to make a complaint with the police,” said Sonia Singh, an organizer at the Workers’ Action Centre, which speaks for wage earners without union protection or economic clout.

Labour Minister Peter Fonesca, who is responsible for enforcing Ontario’s employment standards, insists the bill will speed up the resolution of workplace disputes. “One-third of our complaints are resolved with one call by the ministry,” he told CBC radio this week. “We know that can be done by having the claimant speak to the employer.”

He added that workers with language difficulties, disabilities or a fear of speaking to their employer can bypass this requirement.

If Fonseca genuinely believes an employer who responds readily to a call from an employment standards officer would treat a complaint from low-ranking employee with equal dispatch, he needs to visit a few of the sites where newcomers, low-income women and other vulnerable Ontarians work.

Fonseca is right that the 185-page bill has a provision allowing certain claimants to go straight to an employment standards officer; but very few temp workers know that. Even with if they did, they couldn’t be sure they would qualify.

British Columbia passed similar legislation eight years ago. Thousands of exploited workers simply stopped filing claims.

If that happened here, it would alleviate one of Fonseca’s headaches: a backlog of 14,000 labour complaints. But it would undercut the grateful workers who applauded him, 20 months ago, when he unveiled his plan to upgrade and enforce employment standards. “This will put an end to unscrupulous agencies that take advantage of and exploit vulnerable workers,” he promised.

The finance committee still has a chance to recommend that the government rethink this portion of Bill 68. The opposition parties still have an opportunity to say no. And Ontarians still have time to let Fonseca — or their MPP — know what they think of this streamlining plan.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/article/844946–step-backward-in-labour-laws >

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