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Enforcement of labour laws a ‘serious problem’

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TORONTO—An expert panel has found a “serious problem” with enforcement of employment standards across Ontario.

“We conclude there are too many people in too many workplaces who do not receive their basic rights,” said the special advisers appointed to do the first review of the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act since the 1990s.

The two-man panel released an interim report yesterday that said labour ministry inspections of work sites found violations of the Act 75-77 percent of the time.

Labour minister Kevin Flynn said the review will help protect a growing number of vulnerable workers.

He noted the fast pace of economic change, globalization, trade deals, and technology resulted in more service sector and white-collar jobs in Ontario, but fewer manufacturing jobs—changing the province’s labour market.

Flynn added the vast majority of Ontario employers provide what the report calls “decency at work,” and make efforts to eliminate discrimination and consistently enforce employee rights.

But he’s worried young people and new Canadians, in particular, sometimes are denied proper pay, vacations, or benefits by some “bad guys,” especially in the retail, hospitality, and construction sectors.

“Unfortunately, there’s a bit of an underbelly, as well, where we get a lot of complaints from certain sectors from people who feel they’re being taken advantage of,” Flynn said.

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce said employers worry about how changes in labour laws would impact the cost of doing business, and want to see an economic impact analysis, in addition to more education and enforcement of the rules.

“We believe that many of the problems with the bad apples that exist are happening simply as a result of not enforcing the current legislation,” said Chamber vice-president Karl Baldauf.

“Rather than create more onerous regulations, perhaps we should get serious about better enforcing existing regulations,” he noted.

The panel will take comments on its interim report until October before it makes final recommendations, but made it clear it doesn’t want to hear the same old “well-known” arguments on issues such as union certification.

“It is unlikely that the repetition of these arguments will be of assistance now in coming to a final recommendation on the issue,” wrote special advisors C. Michael Mitchell and John C. Murray.

Baldauf said businesses fear the panel will recommend allowing union certification simply by having workers sign cards, doing away with a secret vote.

They also don’t want to see new, inflexible rules on scheduling of employees.

But the Ontario Federation of Labour said the review “unearthed a complex and troubling picture of employment” in the province.

“Workers and their families need greater stability—in job status and working conditions, scheduling, hours worked, and pay, as well as the meaningful ability to join a union and exercise their rights to collective bargaining,” OFL president Chris Buckley said in a release.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union said labour laws need to catch up with the many ways workplaces have changed in the last generation to ensure that all workers “have the fairness and protections they deserve.”

Flynn, meanwhile, doubts it still makes sense for the labour ministry to regularly inspect big corporations that treat their workers well, when inspectors could be looking for unscrupulous employers who take advantage of vulnerable workers.

“What I’d like to see is to find the ability to spend much more time in those areas where people seem to think they can operate outside the law and there won’t be any consequence to it,” he said.

“I think there needs to be a consequence to it, and it comes across clearly in the report that any legislation or any statutory changes that may be envisioned by the report clearly must be aimed at the bad guys while allowing the good guys as much flexibility as you possibly can to allow them to compete,” Flynn added.

The panel found only 14 percent of private-sector workers in Ontario are represented by a union, compared with 70 percent in the public sector.

It also said 87 percent of workplaces have fewer than 20 employees.

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