Despite laws that have been in place for decades to protect workers, labour experts say workplace exploitation in Canada is on the rise.
“After doing this for more than a quarter century, I’m still shocked at the stories I hear,” Fay Faraday, a Toronto labour lawyer, said. “I think what I find most troubling is the complacency that we have in society in responding to it. We know the abuses are widespread, and yet it persists.”
She says an increasing number of jobs are now classed as “precarious” and employers are breaking laws covering things like overtime pay, holiday and vacation pay, minimum wage, and record keeping more often.
Last year, the Ontario Ministry of Labour conducted a blitz of precarious workplaces in Toronto. Between May and August, they visited 304 workplaces, and found more than three-quarters of them were not complying with labour laws.
And Faraday says those numbers are not an aberration.
“In the blitzes that they’ve done since 2012, the rate of noncompliance is between 70 and 80 per cent. That’s … a serious problem.”
“Eighty per cent isn’t a tolerable number and shouldn’t be tolerable for anybody in this province” – Kevin Flynn, Ontario Labour Minister
Flynn admits the situation hasn’t improved much. Every year, the ministry issues hundreds of tickets, but the fines are often nothing more than a few hundred dollars.
See a list of businesses caught violating labour laws from 2013-2015
Why it’s happening
Flynn says some businesses build labour violations into their business plan to maximize profits.
“As long as they can get away with it, unfortunately they will continue to do that,” he told 16×9. “It’s our job at the Ministry of Labour to catch the bad guys.”
But how likely is that to happen?
Like most provinces in Canada, Ontario relies mostly on complaints to enforce labour laws. But Faraday says workers in precarious jobs are often fired if they complain, so it doesn’t happen.
“When you have a system that depends on the weakest actor in the system coming forward to police compliance for that system, you know it’s not going to work. We’ve known that for decades.”
Ontario only has 40 proactive enforcement officers doing unannounced inspections, and there are tens of thousands of employers in Ontario, so they know the chances they’ll be inspected is small.
That’s why Faraday says governments need to put more resources into enforcement.
“Having a system where there is proactive enforcement creates that real threat of supervision, of accountability. If employers know that there’s no one looking over their shoulder, what’s the incentive to comply?”
Flynn says most employers follow the law, but resources are limited. “You can’t have a police officer on every corner. You can’t have an MOL (Ministry of Labour) inspector in every workplace on a regular basis.”
But he believes things can be improved. He has ordered a policy review of Ontario’s enforcement system, and promises reforms are on the way. “The lack of that decency that used to typify the relationship between employer and employee, in some cases, seems to be fractured,” he said.
“And we need to do something about that.”
Watch 16×9’s “The Labour Trap” Saturday, April 16, 2016 at 7 p.m.