Working on the edge

An urgent report from the Workers' Action Centre reveals the struggles over precarious work on the frontlines of the neo-liberal economy

This past May, the Workers' Action Centre (WAC) launched Working on the Edge, an urgent report that exposes the precarious labour market experiences of low-wage workers in Ontario. With a provincial election two months away, the WAC is now mobilizing around the issues addressed in the report: an inadequate minimum wage, outdated labour laws that do not cover current forms of work, and weak protection and enforcement of employment standards. These dynamics intersect to cause risk-laden working conditions, which can include low wages, a lack of job and income security, no health benefits, vacation or sick pay.

The WAC is a worker-based organization that aims to improve the conditions of life and work of those in low-wage and precarious employment. Primarily, its members are recent immigrants, workers of colour, women and youth who do not belong to unions.

The experiences documented in Working on the Edge are drawn from interviews with workers on the front-lines of the neo-liberal economy. Their stories illustrate who bears the cost of flexibility and de-regulation in Ontario, and what is at stake if labour conditions are not improved.

Take, for example, Aiesha, who sold cable services door-to-door for a large company. Although she was hired by a subcontractor, she represented the cable company on the job. After a monthâe(TM)s work, Aiesha received only 10 per cent of her wages, so she quit. It took her two years and help from the WAC to get the $2,000 she was owed. The difficulty lay in determining who, exactly, owed Aiesha money.

“What do you do when you have two bosses: one that is making all the decisions about how I work and what I am paid and the other boss that only directs my work day-to-day?” she says in the report. “They both claimed that I was self-employed.”

This is an all-too-common way for employers to avoid following employment standards. Tactics such as outsourcing what is considered to be low-skilled work to subcontractors and misclassifying workers as independent-contractors enables employers to pass the costs of doing business onto workers. This means that workers often have to pay for their own gas to deliver pizzas and packages or, in some cases, are convinced to fork over thousands of dollars to bogus janitorial or security companies for work that never materializes.

While these strategies are carried out in the name of global competitiveness, Working on the Edge notes that it is more often local businesses such as restaurants, business services, construction, retail, warehousing, trucking, janitorial and home healthcare agencies that engage in these cost-cutting practices. These pressures, combined with low wages and insecurity, leave workers juggling multiple jobs or depending on families and friends to survive.

And then there's temp work. The $6-billion a year temporary staffing industry is portrayed as a fast and flexible way to obtain employment. For most workers however, temp work means earning lower wages than permanent workers performing the same tasks and foregoing benefits, holiday pay, sick pay and job security. The temp industry is largely unregulated, and agencies can get away with unfair practices such as breaking contracts with little notice or charging client companies a penalty if a temp worker is hired directly. These practices keep workers trapped in a cycle of temp work, limiting their ability to find more secure employment.

Working on the Edge exposes the reality of work in a deregulated economy. It reveals the disjunction between a labour market characterized by a dramatic increase in part-time, temporary and contract work and an employment standards regime based on an out-dated employment model of full-time work for a single employer in a single workplace—a post-World War II model that was mostly available only to white male citizens.

The few studies that exist on labour standards violations in Canada are revealing: a recent government-led review of the Federal Labour Code found that 25 per cent of federally-regulated employers are in widespread violation of the code; 50 per cent are in partial violation.

Working on the Edge argues that a lack of enforcement of the Employment Standards Act (ESA) gives employers incentive to break the law. In particular, perennial under-funding and under-staffing of Ontario's Ministry of Labour has meant a drop in the number of proactive workplace inspections. Instead, employers are expected to voluntarily comply with the ESA and onus has been placed on individual workers to file a claim if their rights are violated, which for many means risking their jobs.

Another challenge is that the Ministry does not treat a claim as a signal to conduct an extended investigation of a workplace to determine if there are widespread violations. This makes it seem as if a few bad employers are breaking the rules, rather than indicating broader structural problems. Because chances of being caught violating the ESA are slim, and because the penalty for being caught remains low, employers often choose to pay small fines rather than comply with employment standards. To date, just over $100 million in workers' wages have gone unpaid by employers, despite Ministry orders to pay.

At the launch of Working on the Edge, project researcher Tania Das Gupta made clear that the report not only demonstrates the rise of precarious work in Ontario, but also the way in which it disproportionately affects new immigrants and workers of colour.

The intersection of a range of pressures is streaming new immigrants and workers of colour into precarious employment: the demand for “Canadian experience,” a lack of access to services, high costs of skills upgrading, employer discrimination and the need for income. Given this, “itâe(TM)s not an accident that racialized workers are over-represented in precarious work,” said Das Gupta, a York University professor. “Employers assume immigrants are so desperate to survive weâe(TM)ll put up with anything,” This race to the bottom, Das Gupta warned, depresses working conditions for everyone.

Das Gupta's analysis underscores the need for the voices in Working on the Edge to be heard. During the election campaign, the WAC will do what it can to ensure they are heard. The centre is organizing around three main demands.

First, the minimum wage should be raised to $10 per hour immediately, with annual adjustments for cost of living increases. This goal is based on the understanding that someone working full-time, full-year, should earn enough to be at or above the poverty line.

Second, labour standards, policies and practices need to be updated to address current forms of employment in order to protect all workers. The ESA must be expanded to protect workers in precarious and casual employment, and a new section must be drafted to protect workers hired through temporary agencies.

Finally, employment standards must be enforced in Ontario workplaces. This includes providing sufficient funding for the Ministry of Labour to ensure proactive inspections can be carried out, penalties for employers who break the law can be enforced, and unpaid wages owed to workers can be collected.

More than ever before, as the Workers' Action Centre has made clear, Ontario workers need a fair deal.

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