New labour legislation needed to deal with precarious work: Let the consultations begin!

Photo: flickr/My name's axel

This week the Ontario Ministry of Labour initiated a series of public consultations on the changing nature of the modern workplace. 

The consultations are part of the Changing Workplace Review, which will consider how Ontario's current labour legislations could be reformed to support people in 'non-standard jobs,' meaning part-time, temporary or independent contract work. 

Whether by choice or by necessity, more and more Canadians are working freelance and contract jobs. In the GTA and Hamilton areas, nearly 44 per cent of workers are dealing with some level of job precarity, such as irregular and inconsistent scheduling or a lack of any benefits beyond basic wages.

Though permanent full-time work is no longer the norm, it is still the standard assumed by Ontario's labour laws, which is why more and more workers find themselves falling through the cracks.

The first of the consultations took place this week in Toronto and Ottawa. Workers and representatives from community and labour groups brought forward several issues, including the need for paid sick days, fair scheduling, and increased regulation of temporary agencies. 

Along with dozens of other presenters, Ascana Fernando spoke at the Toronto hearing on June 16, about her experience as a precarious worker.

"We do equal work, but we don't get equal pay or equal benefits," said Ascana, who was hired to work at a group home through a temporary agency. "I do the same work as the permanent workers but I get minimum wage, whereas they start their rate at $17 or $18. My agency gets that much, but I only get $11 an hour."

Ascana's temp agency classified her as an independent contractor as a opposed to an employee. That means that she does not receive health and safety coverage, nor is she entitled to minimum wage.

"I work with autistic male individuals and they can be aggressive sometimes but we don't have any work safety protection," said Ascana. "At the same time we don't have fixed schedules, they can call us at any time. We don't have sick days, we don't have vacation, we don't get overtime, or stat holiday pay. That's not fair, that's not equal. That's the reason I went to share my experience, so that the Review Board can see that the Employment Standards Act needs to be updated and changed."

Many of these issues were also addressed in a recent study, released by the Workers Action Centre in anticipation of the Changing Workplace Review. Several community and labour groups, including the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and Parkdale Legal Clinic, have endorsed these recommendations.

As part of their submissions, representatives of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) highlighted two of the recommendations, asking the panel to consider eliminating all exemptions within the existing laws, to ensure the enforcement of "equal standards for all work types including part time, full time, contract, temporary, casual, student and seasonal," as well as instituting laws around mandatory minimum hours and shift change notice.

"This is not just one person saying this, at least eight or nine presenters touched base on the same issues," said Ascana. "My hope is that they understand the present work situation in Ontario and that they will take it seriously."

Two special advisors C. Michael Mitchell and John C. Murray -- one a former union side labour lawyer and the other a former Superior Court Justice and management side labour lawyer -- are tasked with conducting the hearings and then producing a written analysis considering how the Ontario Labour Relations and Employment Standard Acts can be amended to better protect workers.

The two advisors will not be asking question to presenters, explained Ascana, who spoke at the Toronto hearing on June 16. She said that while they are doing this to maintain their neutrality, she believes this leaves room for misunderstanding.

Future consultation dates are scheduled to take place in nine different cities including Sudbury, Hamilton, Windsor, over the next four months.

"The reason I've been taking my personal time to go there is to create public awareness because in the future, my brother or cousin or anyone going into the working force, these precarious jobs will be affecting them. I just want to tell the public, as a good citizen, that everybody should be aware of this."

 

Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People

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