Raise the floor, overhaul Ontario’s ESA

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By David Bush

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Workers’ Action Centre launches its new report “Still working on the edge: Building decent jobs from the ground up.”

On Tuesday morning over a hundred people gathered at a downtown YMCA in Toronto for the launch of the Workers’ Action Centre’s report “Still working on the edge: Building decent jobs from the ground up.”

The report, outlining a number of problems with Ontario’s Employment Standards Act (ESA), was released in response to the Liberal government’s Changing Workplace Review examining both the ESA and the Labour Relations Act, which will occur over the next 18 months. Both the launch and report foreground workers’ voices and how the current ESA is impacting them.

The report highlights a number of key ways in which the ESA is failing workers: misclassifying of workers, unequal pay for equal work, employer exemptions, inadequate sick leave protections, low wages, and lax enforcement.
As the report clearly states, “the ESA’s capacity to provide a floor of rights is eroding.”

This erosion of workplaces standards is taking place in a context of increasing precarity and low-wage employment in the province. In 2004 22 percent of jobs in Ontario were low waged, in 2014 that number has risen to 33 percent.

“The Workers Action Centre has been pushing for an overhaul of the Employment Standards Act and enforcement for a longtime. We have felt that the system has been quite broken,” says Deena Ladd of the Workers’ Action Centre. “The floor (of the ESA) is becoming the norm. So that floor needs to be a decent floor.”

“The issues for me are not having sick days, low wages and the permatemps where workers are doing the same jobs for vastly different pay,” says Justin Kong, a Workers’ Action Centre member and former temp worker. “We feel like our recommendations are reasonable and necessary for ensuring the basic standard.”

The report makes 47 recommendations to improve the ESA in the spirit of making work both decent and fair as set out by the International Labour Organization. Some of the recommendations include increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, ensuring temp agency workers are paid at an equal rate as other employees in a company, eliminating exemptions to the ESA, and increasing enforcement.

Currently the ESA is enforced through a complaints based system reliant upon workers, without the protection of anonymity, to step forward and report violations. There are approximately 15 ESA officers dedicated for proactive enforcement for the entire province. As the report notes even when workers do step forward with complaints and these are confirmed, they rarely trigger a wider investigation into those workplaces. For instance, in 2006/7 there were 11,000 confirmed ESA violations, but they only triggered 142 broader workplace investigations.

As Ladd notes, “no matter what you have on the books and what is written down on paper, if you don’t have the teeth to enforce those rights, it’s meaningless.”

edgeCover250When the Liberals announced a full review of the ESA and LRA in February they appointed C. Michael Mitchell, formerly of Sack Goldblatt MitchellLLP, and the John C. Murray, a former justice of the Ontario Superior Court as special advisors who will lead consultations with both business and community and labour groups across the province. The consultations will start in June and go until October.

Kong says the goal now is “making sure we put enough pressure on the government to adopt some of the changes we have outlined.”

“The consultations provide a vehicle to mobilize our communities around,” says Ladd. “This is about trying to build a culture of organizing. Reaching out to people who are directly affected by poor working conditions and get them connected to an organizing effort.

In the meantime the Workers’ Action Centre and its allies are continuing the fight for decent work through the campaign to raise the minimum wage. The $14 an hour minimum wage call has been retooled as a fight for $15 an hour and fairness, which mirrors similar demands in the United States, B.C. and Nova Scotia. The campaign will launch with a series of actions across the province on April 15.

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