With Ontario set to launch public consultations to review labour laws, the Workers’ Action Centre’s (WAC) new report, Still Working on the Edge: Building Decent Jobs from the Ground Up, is a good place to identify potential reforms.
The report brings to the table what is usually absent from policy discussions about precarious work and poverty: the voice of workers who live with the reality of low wages, income instability, and few employment benefits or protections.
It details further decline in labour standards since the release of its 2007 Working on the Edge study and how exemptions and gaps in the Employment Standards Act (ESA) have eroded wages and working conditions.
The report focuses on the ESA because not only is it “a central feature of labour-market regulation, but it is also an important social policy tool in fighting poverty.”
For the majority of workers, it sets the minimum terms and conditions of work, such as wages, hours, vacation, leave and termination. They reflect society’s norms about work standards in the labour market.
The ESA is supposed to establish a minimum floor for those who have the least ability to negotiate fair wages and working conditions. “But the floor is full of holes like Swiss cheese,” says WAC’s Deena Ladd on the poor protection it gives workers.
The report says the province’s labour laws, regulatory regimes and employment benefits are still based almost exclusively on an employer-employee relationship developed after World War II that linked decent wages, benefits, working conditions and job security to full-time standard employment.
‘It’s flexibility for employers… not us’
The changes that have been made to the ESA over the years have redistributed risks, costs, benefits and power between employers and employees, with the latter bearing most of the burden.
As one worker quoted in the report says, “It’s flexibility for employers; it’s not flexibility for us.”
While employers rationalize their practices as necessary to compete in an increasingly globalized world, workers’ experiences show that outsourcing, indirect hiring and misclassifying workers also take place in sectors with distinctly local markets: food and hospitality, business services, construction and manufacturing of locally consumed goods. And it’s not just the private sector that is doing this. The public sector is also patching together its social services with a primarily female, often racialized workforce in low-paid insecure jobs.
The report’s authors say exemptions and special rules disproportionately affect some groups, thus reinforcing existing labour market inequalities. For example, workers in agriculture, information technology and construction do not have the same protections afforded to hours of work and overtime that other workers have.
Plea for higher minimum wage
Apart from these active erosions of standards, not acting on issues has also undermined the ESA’s capacity to protect workers in low-wage and precarious work.
From the late 1970s until quite recently, Ontario’s minimum wage has been substantially below the poverty level. It remains at 17% below the poverty line, contributing to a low-wage labour market and prompting the report to recommend bringing “decency to Ontario’s minimum wage policy.”
Since the last recession, many of the full-time, better-paid jobs have been permanently lost. New full-time job growth is taking place in lower paid sectors of the economy. In 2014, 33% of workers had low wages compared to only 22% a decade earlier.
The WAC report suggests changes to the ESA to make the rules fairer for people in precarious work. Its recommendations include:
- Broaden the definition of employee to include anyone who is paid to do work or supply services. The onus should be on the employer to prove a worker is not an employee.
- Make client companies jointly responsible with temp agencies for implementing all rights.
- Ensure same treatment and benefits for workers doing the same work but classified differently.
- Repeal exceptions to overtime pay and paid emergency and sick leave.
- Regulate renewal of contracts to protect workers’ benefits and job status.
- Require two weeks’ advance posting of work schedules and minimum three-hour shifts.
- Ensure employees have a right to a workplace free from psychological harassment.
- Ensure protection from wrongful dismissal by setting up a procedure for making complaints.
- Develop a proactive system that compels employers to comply with the law.
- Raise minimum wage to $15 per hour and repeal occupational and age exemptions.
- Establish provincial fair wage policy for government procurement of goods and services.
Links to reports
Links to opinions and media articles
- Ontario’s Employment Standards Act is in desperate need of reform: Toronto Star editorial
- Labour minister vows to do more to help precariously employed: Toronto Star report
- Too many Ontario workers exploited; laws need quick overhaul, study urges: Toronto Star report
- Province has reached ‘critical moment’ in workers’ rights, says new report: RCI
- Solutions to precarious work in Ontario: new report: CCPA blog
- Too Many Ontario Workers Not Getting a Fair Deal: Report: News for Ontario’s Ninety-Nine Percent