Ontario’s labour ministry must ensure employees are paid what they are owed

Posted on August 3, 2016 in Delivery System

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – The Ontario Ministry of Labour failed to collect $28 million owed to employees by law-breaking bosses, according to a new study.
Aug. 2, 2016.   Editorial

It’s hard to believe that in Ontario unscrupulous bosses can get away without paying their employees and not be prosecuted. But that’s exactly what a new study shows.

The report, obtained by the Star’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh, was conducted for the Ministry of Labour as part of an ongoing review of the Employment Standards Act. It found employees have lost out on $28 million in unpaid wages over the past six years because the Ministry of Labour failed to collect money owed to them. More disturbing: less than 0.2 per cent of bosses who are guilty of monetary violations are ever prosecuted.

And those are just the employers who are caught. Many employees, if not the majority, never complain to the ministry about wage theft for fear of losing their jobs. As the study puts it, “Accessing the claims process may be a risky venture.”

This most recent report bolsters an argument the Star has made before: The ministry must stop depending on complaints from employees to enforce the act. Instead it should conduct more surprise inspections, which are more successful both at catching law-breaking employers and collecting unpaid wages.

Indeed, over the past six years the ministry has collected 89 per cent of money owing to workers when it uses so-called “blitzes.”

But still it sticks with its complaints driven process to enforce the act though it knows that even when individual employees file successful claims against employers about two-thirds of the companies still do not comply.

Last year, for example, it assessed some 17,500 individual claims compared to conducting just 2,477 proactive inspections leading to fines totalling only $151,691.

Compare that to the ministry’s own health and safety division, which conducted more than 7,100 blitz inspections resulting in convictions of 817 law-breaking bosses and fines of $9.3 million.

The employment standards division of the ministry must, like the health division, take a more proactive stand. These are not paltry sums that employees are losing. The study found about half the claims were for $1,000 or more, “a loss which may result in employees’ inability to meet their basic expenses.”

While the review of the Employment Standards Act is not expected to wrap up until the end of the year, the ministry needn’t wait until it is completed to take steps to better protect workers from wage theft.

The study confirms once again that it should not depend on workers to complain when they aren’t paid. It should blitz workplaces, collect unpaid wages, and prosecute employers who flout the law. It’s that simple.

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