“Undercover in temp nation” / Sara Mojtehedzadeh, Brendan Kennedy (Toronto Star, Sep. 9, 2017)
“In workplaces around the province, the use of temp agencies limits companies’ liability for accidents on the job, reduces their responsibility for employees’ rights, and cuts costs…” In an expose of employment conditions and work environment for temporary help agency workers, Toronto Star investigative reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh went undercover for a month on the production line at Fiera Foods, one the country’s major food processing companies. Her findings confirm those of a recent report for the Ontario government that temp agency employees – many of whom are newcomers – are some of the most vulnerable and precariously employed of all workers in today’s labour market. As reported in a 2014 study on the health impacts of such work on racialized, immigrant women in the Greater Toronto Area, “temporary and on-call agency work seemed to be the new norm in both the private and non-profit health and social services agencies… Working precariously meant not just fewer hours and lower wages, but included the quality of work, the differential treatment being an agency worker; and the ‘invisible’ and ‘unpaid’ time and energy spent in-between and in getting from one job site to another…”
By the numbers
As the Toronto Star article states, Fiera is not alone in relying on workers supplied by the 2,600 active temp help agency offices now operating in Ontario (an increase of 20% in the last decade). Over that same ten years, the number of temporary jobs in Toronto’s food manufacturing sector jumped by 110%, permanent jobs by only 3%. Statistics Canada numbered current temporary workers in Ontario at over 747,000, although the numbers of those engaged as temp agency employees rather than being hired directly is difficult to precisely gauge (Statistics Canada stopped collecting this data in 2004). The WSIB estimates “full-time equivalent” temp agency employees as approximately 120,000. Given that the criteria used in this estimate does not count those working non-standard hours, who are paid in cash with no deductions, or who pick up several shifts or part-time jobs through multiple staffing agencies, the actual number of temp agency employees is much higher. Where once employed mainly in casual office jobs, the majority of temp agency workers are now in non-clerical sectors, including manufacturing, construction, health-care, restaurant, driving.
Increased risk of injury – who pays?
International studies on the temp industry have found agency employees face “greater risk of injury and are more likely to be exposed to dangerous working conditions than permanent employees.” In Ontario, WSIB 2016 statistics indicate non-clerical temps were more than twice as likely to get hurt on the job as their counterparts in permanent employment. These figures omit the many temp workers who, afraid to lose jobs from which they can be fired with little notice, may not even file a workers’ compensation claim.
While inadequate health and safety training is a factor behind higher injury rates, research for Toronto’s Institute for Work and Health also suggests that companies contract out risky work to temps because of financial incentives under the current workers’ compensation system. As the the temp agency is considered by the WSIB as the worker’s employer if they are hurt on the job, the practice of experience rating means it is the agency which is liable for higher premiums based on injury claims rates, not the client employer. Nor, as the Star article points out, is the company providing the actual workplace held financially accountable through increased premiums for repeated safety violations found by Ministry of Labour inspections. And if the temp agency is not one of the long-established agencies but a “bad actor” with only a virtual address or operating out of a basement, legal or financial leverage to improve safety becomes negligible.
The government response?
At Queen’s Park Monday Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn called the rise in temporary work ‘alarming’ … “What we are concerned about is the proliferation of temporary help agencies taking the place of what is essentially full-time employment.”
Greater protections for temporary agency employees’ rights, equal pay to that of permanent counterparts and improving the ability to unionize are among the measures currently being discussed in second reading debate of Bill 148, Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act 2017 in the Legislative Assembly. The bill, based on the Changing Workplaces Review consultations, follows Bill 18, the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act 2014 which made the agency liable for unpaid wages and gave the government the ability to create regulations making the client company responsible through experience rating premiums for workplace injury or illness (no such regulations have yet been made).
Critics of Bill 148, such as the Workers’ Action Centre, argue that “there are so many loopholes that you could drive a bus through them.” Among these, the failure to address injury liability — one of the most significant financial incentives to use temp agencies. The Minister of Labour said his government is still looking into the issue and working with the WSIB. Although the Board will eliminate one loophole (in 2019) by which the temp agency sector had its own insurance rate at the WSIB, lower than that of many high-risk industries, temp agencies will still remain workers’ legal employer for the purposes of injury claims – yet “they have no control over work conditions. It’s bizarre,” says University of Waterloo’s Ellen MacEachen. Indeed.
- Howard, John. 2017. “Nonstandard Work Arrangements and Worker Health and Safety.” American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 60(1): 1-10
- Ontario. Ministry of Labour. 2017 Jun. 6. News release: Creating Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs for Temporary Help Workers
- Mojtehedzadeh, Sara. 2017 Jul. 15. “Temp Agencies on Rise as Province Seeks to Protect Vulnerable Workers.” Toronto Star
- Ng, Winnie et al. 2016. Working So Hard and Still So Poor! A Public Health Crisis in The Making : The Health Impacts of Precarious Work on Racialized Refugee and Immigrant Women. Toronto: Ryerson University. Faculty of Community Services
- Institute for Work and Health. Topic: Temporary Work Agencies and Workplace Health and Safety. Toronto: IWH