TORONTO – An expert panel has found a “serious problem” with enforcement of employment standards across Ontario.
“We conclude there are too many people in too many workplaces who do not receive their basic rights,” said the special advisers appointed to do the first review of the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act since the 1990s.
The two-man panel released an interim report Wednesday that said labour ministry inspections of work sites found violations of the Act 75-to-77 per cent of the time.
Labour Minister Kevin Flynn said the review will help protect a growing number of vulnerable workers.
He said the fast pace of economic change, globalization, trade deals and technology resulted in more service sector and white-collar jobs in Ontario but fewer manufacturing jobs, changing the province’s labour market.
Flynn said the vast majority of Ontario employers provide what the report calls “decency at work,” and make efforts to eliminate discrimination and consistently enforce employee rights.
But he’s worried young people and new Canadians, in particular, are sometimes denied proper pay, vacations or benefits by some “bad guys,” especially in the retail, hospitality and construction sectors.
“Unfortunately there’s a bit of an underbelly as well where we get a lot of complaints from certain sectors from people who feel they’re being taken advantage of,” he said.
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce said employers worry about how changes in labour laws would impact the cost of doing business, and want to see an economic impact analysis, in addition to more education and enforcement of the rules.
“We believe that many of the problems with the bad apples that exist are happening simply as a result of not enforcing the current legislation,” said Chamber vice president Karl Baldauf. “Rather than create more onerous regulations, perhaps we should get serious about better enforcing existing regulations.”
The panel will take comments on its interim report until October before it makes final recommendations, but made it clear it doesn’t want to hear the same old “well-known” arguments on issues such as union certification.
“It is unlikely that the repetition of these arguments will be of assistance now in coming to a final recommendation on the issue,” wrote special ad visors C. Michael Mitchell and John C. Murray.
Baldauf said businesses fear the panel will recommend allowing union certification simply by having workers sign cards, doing away with a secret vote, and they also don’t want to see new, inflexible rules on scheduling of employees.
The Ontario Federation of Labour said the review “unearthed a complex and troubling picture of employment” in the province.
“Workers and their families need greater stability – in job status and working conditions, scheduling, hours worked, and pay, as well as the meaningful ability to join a union and exercise their rights to collective bargaining,” OFL President Chris Buckley said in a release.
Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, said the report recognizes that Ontario employers are increasingly using precarious work, offering low paying part-time jobs or contract-to-contract positions without benefits or security, and the impact on workers is compounded by erratic scheduling and growing income inequality.
Flynn doubts it still makes sense for the labour ministry to regularly inspect big corporations that treat their workers well, when inspectors could be looking for unscrupulous employers who take advantage of vulnerable workers.
“What I’d like to see is to find the ability to spend much more time in those areas where people seem to think they can operate outside the law and there won’t be any consequence to it,” he said.
“I think there needs to be a consequence to it, and it comes across clearly in the report that any legislation or any statutory changes that may be envisioned by the report clearly must be aimed at the bad guys, while allowing the good guys as much flexibility as you possibly can to allow them to compete.”
The panel found only 14 per cent of private sector workers in Ontario are represented by a union, compared with 70 per cent in the public sector, and said 87 per cent of workplaces have fewer than 20 employees.