In bid to tackle workplace abuse, a model that works
Advocates say better inspections and bigger fines could help curb wage theft.
Feb. 18, 2016
By Sara Mojtehedzadeh
When it comes to enforcing the law, there is one thing John Cartwright knows: money talks.
As a former construction tradesman, he remembers seeing workers risking - and sometimes losing - their lives on the job. But over the past 40 years, he has also witnessed a dramatic change in how those workplace risks are managed, thanks to a combination of robust inspections and hefty fines for breaking the law.
“If people are going to get killed because of (an employer’s) negligence, then there will be a penalty to that,” said Cartwright, who is now president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council. “It’s the only thing that really gets the attention of some employers.”
“The information is being quite clearly communicated to most medium- and large-scale employers that the consequences of making mistakes are substantial,” added Cam Mustard, president of the Toronto-based Institute for Work & Health.
That approach has made Ontario the safest province in the country to work - and advocates say the Ministry of Labour should apply this approach to tackling employment standards violations such as wage theft.
“We’ve been saying that for years: we would like the model and the culture of health and safety,” said Deena Ladd of the Toronto-based Workers’ Action Centre.
“I would argue that people’s health and safety is absolutely serious. But I also think if people don’t have the money that they worked for and they can’t put food on the table and they lose their apartment, that is important as well.”
To see the stark difference between the two regimes, all you have to do is run the numbers.
Last year, the ministry conducted more than 7,100 proactive blitz inspections for health and safety - in addition to 70,600 health-and-safety field visits to more than 32,000 workplaces across the province.
A full 60 per cent of the ministry’s health and safety enforcement came through inspections. In total, it issued more than 131,000 orders for workplace infractions, convicted 817 law-breaking bosses and slapped them with $9.3 million in fines.
The same year, the ministry conducted about 2,500 proactive inspections for employment standards abuses, which include violations such as failure to pay minimum wage, illegal deductions from wages and other forms of wage theft. The bulk of the enforcement still comes through workers stepping forward to file individual complaints, often at the expense of their jobs.
Despite 12,600 successful claims worth $18.9 million last year, the ministry issued just 246 orders for workplace infractions, prosecuted a total of eight employers and collectively fined them $151,691.
“We want more of the culture of enforcement and making sure that employers are following the law in employment standards,” said Ladd.
Health-and-Safety inspections are more robust too: while employers are given advance notice of employment standards inspections, workplaces are not warned of health-and-safety visits. There are more than 400 occupational health-and-safety inspectors, compared to 198 officers devoted to employment standards inspections. Of those, just 40 are dedicated to proactive inspections.
“When you compare the two regimes you see that there’s exponentially more health-and-safety inspectors,” Ladd said. “(Workers) have an ability to make anonymous complaints. Their culture is to ensure enforcement by penalization of an employer that breaks the law so they feel the consequences.”
According to Avvy Go, director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, bigger fines for violating employment standards would be a win-win for the ministry.
“The fine goes to the government ... hopefully that will add to the ministry’s coffers and they will be able to hire more investigators and officers to enforce the law.”
And that, argues Go, is a win for workers.
As advocates call on the government to apply its successful approach to workplace health and safety to other abuses such as wage theft, Rob Ellis can attest to the importance of outreach, education and carrying a big stick.
Ellis’s son David was just 18 when, on his second day on the job, he was left alone on the floor of an Oakville bakery - no training, no supervision. Typical of his “can-do” Canadian attitude, Ellis says his son threw himself into the work anyway.
What David did not know as he set about cleaning an industrial mixer is that the Ministry of Labour had already told his bosses the machine was faulty and needed fixing.
His bosses ignored the order. When the machine accidently activated, David was sucked in head first.
“He had absolutely no chance,” his father says.
His son’s supervisor did jail time, but the company received just a small fine and was back up and running two days after the 1999 tragedy, Ellis says.
Changing workplace culture to prevent such tragedies, he argues, involves empowering workers and getting employer buy-in - which he has done by launching the “Jersey of Courage” campaign to educate bosses and young workers about health and safety.
It also means slapping employers with stiff penalties when necessary.