Ontario precarious workers 'Still Living on the Edge,' report

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Photo: flickr/Jose Maria Cuellar

"Still Living on the Edge," a new report released today, finds that Ontario's employment laws are failing low-wage and precarious workers.

Forty per cent of Ontarians work 'non-standard jobs,' meaning part-time, temporary, or independent contract work, and 33 per cent work low-wage jobs. But, as the report shows, Ontario's Employment Standards Act (ESA) has not adapted to protect the growing number of precarious workers in the province.

First written in the post-WWII prosperity era, Ontario's Employment Standard Act (ESA) assumes economic stability and a labour market dominated by full-time permanent jobs with employment benefits and steady wage increases. But those are not the times we live in.

"Because of that, there's all these huge gaps around non-standard forms of work," explained the reports author and Parkdale Legal Clinic Community Legal Worker, Mary Gellatly.

"In the absence of regulation, employers have been able to create increasingly insecure and flexible staffing strategies, which are giving rise to much of the problems that workers are facing today."

For example, as Gallatly explained, a growing number of workers, including cleaners, truckers, and other service providers, are being misclassified as independent contractors, which allows employers to take less responsibility for their workers. As a result, these 'independent contractors' are being pushed beyond the pale of the employment standards act and other employment laws, losing their entitlements to basic labour rights, such as the Canadian Pension Plan and Workers' Compensation.

A big problem is temp agencies, Galletly explains, which often place workers as independent contractors. One of the Workers' Action Centre members referred to in the report was placed through a temp agency in a group home as an independent contractor, where she worked 48 hours over three days for about $11.00 an hour, minus the agency's finders fee.

"It's quite worrisome the moves that the temp industry is making to assist employers to develop an ever-more contingent workplace in their practices," said Gellatly. Even if the ESA was adequate, another major problem is that labour standards are not being enforced. "For many people's workplaces, violations of basic rights has become quite normal."

The report, written in collaboration with workers, advocates, and activists associated with the Workers' Action Centre, relies heavily on qualitative data, including interviews and anecdotes from workers themselves.

"Over the past year we've been having meetings with workers [at the Workers Action Centre] to talk about what people are confronting in the workplace, what are the key problems, and what are the key changes and priorities that people wanted to see," explained Gellatly

The report also builds on a previous Workers Action Centre study, which identified the downward trend toward precarious labour in 2007. The report also anticipates the Changing Workplace Review a series of public consultations launched by the Ontario government in February to identify potential labour and employment law reforms.

As part of this growing conversation about precarious work, the report makes a series of recommendations that would help tighten up loopholes in labour law and support workers in standing up for their rights and seeking collective representations -- something which Gellatly says is particularly hard for low-wage and precarious workers.

Included among the 80+ recommendations made in the report are raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, removing exemptions and special rules from the ESA, and broadening the law's definition of an 'employee.'


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.

Photo: flickr/Jose Maria Cuellar

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