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Province takes aim at workplace protections
Inspectors who look into workers’ complaints will be reduced, union bulletin shows
The Ministry of Labour is aiming to reduce the number of inspectors tasked with investigating workplace abuses, according to an internal union bulletin obtained by the Star.
A government hiring freeze instituted last year already slowed plans to double the ministry’s complement of employment standards officers, introduced under the Liberals in 2017 through Bill 148. That legislation mandated hiring 175 new officers. Around 75 were hired before the Liberals were voted out and the hiring freeze announced.
Now, the ministry “wants to reduce the number of officers to the pre-Bill 148 levels,” according to a May memo from the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union to its members.
“The employer has come up with a plan to reduce numbers through attrition within the next three years.”
Minister of Labour spokesperson Christine Bujold did not answer a direct question on specific numbers, but said the ministry was “not proposing any involuntary reductions in Employment Standards Officers.”
She said a shift to “digital service delivery” would help “reduce claims by workers as employers are given digital tools to ensure compliance.”
“This shift will allow Ministry of Labour inspectors to focus on high-risk employers,” she said.
This year’s provincial budget cut $11 million from the ministry’s budget.
New employer self-audit tools will “modernize and streamline” enforcement efforts by helping employers to “educate themselves” on their workplace obligations, the ministry has said.
Employment standards officers investigate complaints and inspect workplaces for issues like failing to pay minimum wage, overtime, or public holiday pay. They do not deal with health and safety issues.
A 2016 report by two independent experts was commissioned by the Ministry of Labour to review the province’s workplace standards.
The report found that Ontario faces “serious” and extensive problems enforcing basic employment rights.
“We conclude that there is a serious problem with enforcement of Employment Standards Act (ESA) provisions,” the report reads. “While most employers likely comply or try to comply with the ESA, we conclude that there are too many people in too many workplaces who do not receive their basic rights.”
Avvy Go, director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, said she is concerned about what reduced enforcement staffing will mean for vulnerable workers in the province.
“Based on our clinic’s over 30 years experience working with low-income workers in precarious employment, enforcement is the key to ensuring their rights are being protected,” she said.
“For many years, we’ve been pushing for having stronger enforcement. We got some under the last government during the last months of their term, and it’s very sad to see that small bit of change being rolled back.”
In 2017-18, the Ministry of Labour had 271 employment standards officers – up from 198 the previous year, before Bill 148.
Ministry blitzes in the past regularly found violations in more than 75 per cent of workplaces inspected. In response, the previous Liberal government pledged to hire 175 new employment standards officers and aim to inspect one in 10 Ontario workplaces.
After the change in government and a hiring freeze was instituted, ministry staff were also instructed not to initiate any new proactive employment standards inspections, according to an internal memo previously obtained by the Star.
According to the memo, the move was motivated by a significant backlog of employment standards claims filed by workers – exacerbated by a “discretionary spending freeze and subsequent suspension of recruitment” at the ministry.
Bujold said ensuring compliance with the Employment Standards Act was “very important to the Ford PC government,” which was why the ministry was “focusing on digital service delivery that will enhance compliance support and provide better customer support.”
“This approach is expected to reduce claims by workers as employers are given digital tools to ensure compliance with the Act,” she said.
Proactive inspections, which are initiated at the behest of the ministry rather than an individual worker’s complaint, are more resource intensive, but also far more effective at recovering unpaid wages, according to the ministry’s own data.
“Having strong enforcement is the only way to make sure many of these employers will follow the law and give the workers what they earned,” Go said.
“We’re talking about sometimes not even paying the minimum wage, the very basic requirements under the ESA.”