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Workers' rights violations not made public in Ontario

Unlike other provinces, Ontario doesn’t keep a public registry of violations by employers, such as refusing to pay wages.
June 25, 2015
By Sara Mojtehedzadeh

Caught violating workers’ rights? Chances are, no one will ever know.

In Ontario, there is no public registry of companies who refuse to pay workers’ wages.

Employers approved to do business with the government don’t need to reveal when they’re nabbed for breaking the law.

And when a firm settles a claim against it behind closed doors - often for far less than the worker was owed - the cases remain completely secret.

Critics argue the province lags far behind other jurisdictions when it comes to ensuring transparency and accountability for workers’ rights.

“To have an effective enforcement mechanism, there has to be consequences,” says Mary Gellatly, head of the workers’ rights division of Parkdale Community Legal Services.

Currently, the Ministry of Labour’s website only lists companies that have been prosecuted for ignoring the Employment Standards Act.

But it is far more common for the ministry to issue “orders” against companies rather than prosecute them. Orders are issued every time the ministry finds a company in violation of the law and often direct the employer to compensate workers for unpaid wages.

The database does not list employers who receive orders or name those who fail to comply with them. That means a firm could owe an employee thousands of dollars in wages but still never be publicly named.

“We think that should be a public list, so that anyone looking for a job and anyone who is procuring contracts can have a place to look at it. And I think it could act as an incentive for companies to not even be on that list,” says Deena Ladd of the Workers’ Action Centre.

Gellatly points to other jurisdictions that have already opted for greater transparency in their enforcement efforts.
Alberta’s Ministry of Labour, for example, maintains a searchable database of all outstanding orders against employers over the past 10 years, including the dollar figure owed to employees.

“Workers can look and see what company pays and what doesn’t,” says Gellatly.

Ontario’s lack of transparency transcends to the public sector, critics argue, after the Star revealed the government has done millions of dollars in business with law-breaking temp agencies.

Temp agencies must disclose any violations of the Employment Standards Act from the two years preceding their bid to become “vendors of record” for the government. But once they’re approved for government use, they do not need to disclose any subsequent violations.

Compare that to the City of Toronto’s policy, which requires all of its vendors to immediately alert the city if a worker is injured, if the company is issued an order by the Ministry of Labour, or is charged under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

“I think it’s important for the city to maintain its standards. I think it’s important for us to ensure that our vendors are compliant with legislation,” says Michael Pacholok, head of the city’s purchasing and material management division.

The thickest veil of secrecy lies over employers who violate the Employment Standards Act, but settle claims against them behind closed doors.

Critics say settlements often result in workers receiving far less than they are owed because, unlike their employers, they usually can’t afford legal representation.

But employers who settle are not even recorded as having an order issued against them. More than 1,800 employment claims were settled in Ontario last year, according to figures requested by the Star.

“You could have a repeat violator and a repeat settler, and they’re never going to be on any list,” says Ladd.

“(Employers) just have to play the game and then they just settle for half the amount that they would have paid anyways.”