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Ontario government spent millions on contracts with law-breaking temp agencies

The province has continued to do business with several temp companies its own inspectors had found violated worker rights.
June 24, 2015
By Sara Mojtehedzadeh

They’ve flouted workers’ right to public holidays, rest periods and permanent employment. But they’re still doing business on the taxpayers’ dime.

The Ontario government is paying millions of dollars to temporary employment agencies that its own inspections found to have broken the law, the Star has learned.

A detailed breakdown of the Ministry of Labour’s 2012 inspection blitz, requested by the Star, shows that more than one-third of the temp agencies used by the government were found to have violated the Employment Standards Act.

But that didn’t stop six government ministries, including the Ministry of Labour itself, from last year paying offenders more than $775,000 for temporary help services.

A further $2.2 million in unspecified payments was paid to law-breaking agencies, which according to their websites provide a range of additional services including human resource audits and permanent job placements.

“It’s really troublesome to me,” said Jessica Sikora, who works with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and is a former temp agency worker. “If it’s truly a goal of theirs to make work in Ontario fairer, then the government needs to lead by example with its own employees.”

Drake International, one of the 12 temporary agencies in Ontario considered a “vendor of record” for the public service, received more than $620,000 in government payments. That’s despite being penalized by the Ministry of Labour for shoddy record-keeping, restricting temps from being hired directly by the government, and not ensuring they received proper eating periods, public holidays or limits on their hours of work.

According to the province’s Public Accounts records for 2013-2014, the Ministry of Labour itself paid almost $71,000 in temp wages to Drake International - even after its own inspection exposed them as law-breakers. The agency also had contracts with several other ministries, including health and education.

In an emailed statement to the Star, Drake International said it “revised” its operations to ensure “full compliance” with the act after the inspection.

Government-approved temp agencies Bagg Group and Ant & Bee Corporation also benefitted from lucrative temp contracts with the public sector, in spite of breaking numerous provisions of the Employment Standards Act. Two others, Manpower Professional and Adecco, were also in violation of the act during the 2012 temp agency inspection blitz. The following year, they received more than $600,000 in government payments for unspecified services.

In response to queries from the Star, the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, which administers the public service’s vendor-of-record program, said the temporary agencies approved for government use have now “fully complied with all the orders against them and have no outstanding claims under the Employment Standards Act.”

It said any complaints about vendor impropriety were taken “seriously.”

“It’s important to understand that temporary help services are only used by ministries when the work needed cannot be filled through the usual Ontario public service HR recruitment practices,” the emailed statement added.

In total, Public Accounts records show that Ontario’s ministries collectively spent more than $18 million on temp agency services last year. The Star has previously reported on the lack of protections afforded temp agency workers as a result of the province’s outdated Employment Standards Act.

Jessica Sikora, of OPSEU, said that as the government embarks on a review of those laws, it should take a hard look at its own practices.

Sikora, 29, has first-hand experience with precarious public-sector work: she landed her first job with the Ministry of Community and Social Services through temp agency HR Associates in 2009. Her starting salary was $14 an hour, which she estimates was at least $8 less an hour than what her permanent counterparts were paid. She said temp agency workers in her unit were often saddled with extra tasks because they couldn’t afford to say no.

“The pressure to take on absolutely anything that needed to be done was certainly much, much higher if you were a temp,” she said.

It took more than two years for Sikora to land a permanent job with a ministry. She argues that temp agencies are now becoming the “standard route” into government - and that the trend is doing little to improve quality of service.

“We had work that involved incredibly private information. We had work that involved dealing with people in really, really sensitive situations, and we had work that involved oversight - making sure the government’s money was being spent appropriately,” she said.

“How could that work be done effectively by someone who knows they’re not making a lot more than if they worked at a fast-food restaurant?”