Widespread workplace violations leave workers without basic rights, report finds

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Updating labour laws to better address the fractured and complex reality of work today is no easy feat.

Ontarians working to achieve better protections for workers -- as well as those fighting against them -- are currently digesting a significant and wide-ranging report addressing the challenges (and possible solutions) to modernizing the province's Labour Relations and Employment Standards acts.

Released last week, the 300-page interim report on the province's "Changing Workplaces Review" lists more than 200 possible ways -- including doing nothing -- to manage about 50 problems identified across the two sets of legislation.

Specifically, the report targets legal shortfalls affecting vulnerable workers in precarious jobs.

In Ontario, more than 1.7 million, or nearly 30 per cent of workers, are low-wage employees earning within $4 of the minimum wage, latest available data from Statistics Canada shows. In 2001, about 16.5 per cent of the workforce were low-wage earners.

"We conclude that there are too many people in too many workplaces who do not receive their basic rights," Michael Mitchell and John Murray, the review's two-person expert panel, stated in the report.

The pair cited research, commissioned for the review, that showed lax enforcement of regulations under the Employment Standards Act had led to workers missing out on millions in stolen wages.

According to the research, 15,000 complaints are made to the Labour Ministry annually for violations under the act each year. Of those that are investigated, about 70 per cent are found to be valid.

In the past six years, the Labour Ministry had failed to collect $28 million in stolen wages, the research found. Overall, this made up 60 per cent of money owed to workers for wage-theft during that time.

Furthermore -- and perhaps most telling -- only 0.18 per cent of cases where monetary violations had occurred were escalated to prosecution in the three years to 2015.

In addition to this, between 2011 and 2014, workplace inspections by the Labour Ministry found employers were violating regulations 75 to 77 per cent of the time. The violation rate for inspections carried out following a complaint was only slightly higher at 80 per cent.

"It is apparent there is substantial non-compliance," the report stated.

For those on the frontlines of the fight for fair workers' rights, these statistics, and the interim report, document and quantify an all too familiar situation.

Poorly regulated employment standards, which already lack guarantees around basic working conditions like regular scheduling, wage payments and sick days, make vulnerable workers more susceptible to exploitation and substandard working environments.

With submissions on the interim report invited until October, it is unlikely that any final recommendations will be made before next Spring (this interim report was supposed to be released in February).

At that time, Ontario will be looking towards its next provincial elections, set down for Spring 2018.

The Wynne government's "goal" of improving protections for Ontario's vulnerable and precarious workers will likely be tested by what comes out of this review. Its commitment to act, or unwillingness to act -- following an extensive review into labour laws it had commissioned -- will undoubtedly provide a solid platform to discuss the real problems facing workers.

Already, Labour Minister Kevin Flynn, and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce have made comments implying violations to the act are not widespread, rather they are confined to a "few bad apples."

Ontarians will need to consider the significance of the government's reaction to the review as well as that of other political parties vying for votes in 2018.

As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives concluded in its study performed for Ontario's labour laws' review: "increasing the minimum wage, regulating work scheduling, and providing greater access to more paid time off are changes to the ESA (Employment Standards Act) that are within its scope and can be implemented to improve the lives of low-wage workers."

Improving living standards in Ontario is intrinsically linked with gaining fairer rights for all workers, particularly when it's the rights of those 30 per cent of workers at the bottom of the pay scale and in the least-secure jobs. Amending the Employment Standards Act to do this is an important step in achieving this.

And for the rest of Canada, changes in labour laws in one jurisdiction can, and often do, affect what is happening in another. 

The outcome of what is happening in Ontario will be closely monitored by employers, law-makers, workers' rights advocates and unions around the country.


Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: flickr/scottpartee

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