Will Ontario act on Law Commission's advice to address precarious work crisis?

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A "landmark" report on precarious work released last week by the Law Commission of Ontario gives academic confirmation to what workers' advocates have been saying for years: that an increasing proportion of workers in Ontario (and Canada, for that matter) find themselves stuck in insecure, temporary or part-time jobs that put them barely above the poverty line. And that regulatory loopholes and shoddy enforcement of employment laws are leaving these workers vulnerable to burnout and abuse.

 Roughly one fifth of workers in Ontario have precarious jobs, according to the report -- that is, jobs that provide "low wages or insufficient hours of work, few or no benefits, little job security and minimal control over their work conditions." They've counted in that number anyone whose job (or combination of jobs) earns them less than 1.5 times the minimum wage, plus two or more of the following criteria: no pension, no union and small firm size.

Precarious jobs are most common in food services, hotels, agriculture and service industries such as repair, maintenance, laundry, personal care, and business and building support services.

What is so worrying about precarious work, the report points out, is not only the growing proportion of workers who depend on it, but the fact that they're increasingly stuck in this kind of work for years on end. An entry-level position leading to better jobs down the line has become an out-of-date fantasy for many.

The report, drawing on two years of study and consultation with academics, workers advocates, employers' groups, community groups and bureaucrats, presents 47 recommendations for action the Ontario government can take to improve conditions for vulnerable workers. They focus on four areas:

-Increasing employer and employee awareness of workers' existing rights under the Employment Standards Act, and improving the province's enforcement of those oft-ignored standards.

-Changes to the Employment Standards Act to better protect workers in precarious jobs.

-Awareness, enforcement and reforms to workplace health and safety legislation.

-Reform and improvement of provincial training and education programs.

For the Wynne government not to act swiftly on most or all of the report's recommendations, but rather to cherry pick a few of the easiest while ignoring the rest would be a shameful exercise in heel-dragging.

That's because the Law Commission of Ontario (LCO) has clearly limited itself to calling for immediate action on only the least contentious reforms. Reforms like:

-requiring employers to provide written contracts to all employees (contract workers, temporary foreign workers, and temp workers included);

-"substantially" increasing pro-active inspections of workplaces in sectors where violations of employment, health and safety laws are known to be common;

-outlawing the exorbitant fees charged to foreign temporary workers by recruitment firms (as Ontario has already done for live-in caregivers, but for some reason, not foreign workers in other sectors); and

-giving all workers entitlement to 10 days of emergency personal medical leave per year (a right currently denied in workplaces with 50 or fewer employees).

On the trickier ones -- those requiring a substantial injection of public funding, or likely to provoke howls of protest from employers -- the LCO recommends more study of the options.

For instance, on the question of requiring employers to pay part-time workers at the same rate as full-time employees doing the same work, the LCO says the government should "consider what amendments could be made to the ESA" in this respect.

On the minimum wage -- which the government has frozen since 2010, with a yet-to-be-fulfilled promise that it would "appoint a committee… to provide advice on the minimum wage in advance of the 2012 budget" -- the LCO advises simply that this committee be convened. No call here to actually increase the minimum wage or index it to inflation, as other provinces have done.

The report also discusses the possibility of creating a system to provide health benefits to the many workers currently without coverage, for instance through a mandatory, multi-employer funded system similar to the WSIB. The recommendation is merely to form an advisory council that would "explore" these options.

Ontario's opposition Conservatives and hard-right voices in the business community will no doubt devise some twisted logic to argue against the LCO’s recommendations. Or perhaps they'll just dismiss the issue entirely by denying that the rise of precarious work is a problem at all. That's the line being touted by Canadian Business magazine. For some unfortunate reason, the LCO saw fit to cite this illogical drivel in their report.)

Those who pretend to believe that precarious work is a term made up by hand-wringing socialist to decry the rise of non-unionized consultant jobs should aquaint themselves with the stories of workers whose jobs are in fact precarious. The Toronto Workers' Action Centre, which deals with these workers every day, has been collecting and sharing their stories on its website. There you can find one account after another of stolen wages and other mistreatment of people who are barely earning enough to cover their rent and bills.

What is the point of having employment laws at all, if not to protect the most vulnerable workers from abuses like this? Clearly Ontario’s current laws and enforcement system aren't up to the task. For a start, it's the least the government could do to promptly act on all of the recommendations in the LCO report.


Lori Theresa Waller is rabble.ca's labour reporter. For more news from picket lines and workplaces around the world, see her weekly round-up of the top labour stories. 

Photo: LexnGer / flickr

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