Preying on vulnerable workers

Posted on April 18, 2008 in Debates, Equality Debates – comment – Preying on vulnerable workers
April 18, 2008
Carol Goar

She lowered her eyes in shame. “Welfare,” she said softly.

That was the last place Norma Soares wanted to be. She came from Mexico two years ago, determined to work hard. She was willing to do the dirty, menial jobs nobody else wanted. Like most immigrants, she dreamt of a better future.

But she discovered that employers in Canada can cheat workers like her – and get away with it.

Soares was one of the speakers at this week’s poverty forum at Queen’s Park. Her story, while personal, reflected the experience of thousands of new immigrants.

She got a job with a cleaning company as soon as she arrived. She worked hard and did as she was told. Several weeks went by and she hadn’t received a paycheque. When she asked about her wages, no one would give her an answer.

Not knowing what to do, she quit and tried another cleaning company. The same thing happened again.

Now, with the help of the Workers Action Centre, Soares has filed a claim with the Ministry of Labour for her unpaid wages. If she’s extremely lucky, she’ll get the money she is owed within a year.

“These companies are creating belts of misery,” she told Children and Youth Services Minister Deb Matthews, who chairs the cabinet committee drafting Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy. “It’s not just in the Hispanic community and it’s not just cleaners.

“We want to break out of this vicious cycle. We need your help.”

Later in an interview – through an interpreter – Soares talked about her life. She lives on social assistance and hates it. She struggles to buy necessities. Her welfare caseworker keeps telling her to get a job, but she’s afraid to cut her financial lifeline until her financial settlement comes through.

Using language that needs no translation, Soares illustrated what she meant by “belt of misery.” She tightened the black leather belt around her waist to the last notch, then pretended to take it off and turn it into a noose.

The Ontario Labour Ministry received 11,358 complaints like Soares’s last year. Because most immigrants are too isolated or frightened to take action, this represents just a fraction of the abuses that occur.

Even when employers were ordered to hand over unpaid wages, many failed to comply.

What’s more, these companies have little incentive to clean up their act. The probability of being visited by an inspector from the Ontario Ministry of Labour is approximately 1 per cent. The likelihood of being prosecuted is minimal and the fines – ranging from $250 to $1,000 – are of little consequence.

Unless Matthews and her colleagues stop this kind of exploitation, their poverty reduction plan will be built on sinking sand.

How can a government push people into the job market when labour standards are violated with impunity?

How can it fight poverty when it allows employers to prey on vulnerable workers?

Raising the minimum wage won’t solve this problem (although it would help many low-income Ontarians).

Increasing welfare rates won’t protect vulnerable workers (although it would help them buy groceries).

Building more social housing won’t make it safe to step on the lowest rung on the job ladder (although it would help many families).

Affordable child care, a crackdown on predatory lenders, improved access to employment insurance and an increase in the Ontario child benefit – all of which would be welcome – won’t restore the link between a job and a paycheque.

“We need labour standards that are enforced,” Soares told the minister.

Matthews took notes, but made no promises. Her government allocated $3.6 million to the Ministry of Labour in 2007 to reduce the backlog of claims for unpaid wages. But it did not shore up the system.

Without more inspectors to catch lawbreakers and stronger penalties to deter them, what happened to Soares will keep happening.

She hasn’t given up hope. She’s gathering her strength and learning her rights. The next time she ventures into the job market, she’ll be prepared.

Carol Goar’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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