The results of the government report were damning, finding workplace violations widespread in Ontario:
we conclude that there is a serious problem with enforcement of ESA (Employment Standards Act) provisions. While most employers likely comply or try to comply … there are too many people in too many workplaces who do not receive their basic rights” (Changing Workplaces Review Special Advisor’s Interim Report, 2016)
On the issue of wage theft alone, a study by York University researchers found that in the six years prior to 2016, Ontario workers – many in precarious jobs – had $28 million stolen from pay owed them, with less than 0.2 % of employers guilty of monetary violations prosecuted. The authors’ recommendations included making the complaint process easier and safer from retaliation for workers and increasing proactive inspection blitzes.
Community legal clinics’ project “worth every penny”
As reported in a recent Toronto Star article the Mobile Justice Project, since its launch in 2017, has recovered over half a million dollars in unpaid wages for low-income workers in southwestern Ontario unable to afford a lawyer. The Mobile Legal and Social Justice Initiative, providing assistance for employees facing dismissal, workplace violations or discrimination, was a response to a gap identified by Mississauga Community Legal Services associate executive director Doug Kwan and a group of legal clinic lawyers: only around three of the regions 15 legal clinics provided support on workplace issues.
Funded by Legal Aid Ontario (at a modest $310,000 annually), the Project’s three roving lawyers provide employment law services and public legal education on workers’ rights across the region, each covering a large catchment area with diverse clientele and needs – including new workers, older workers with disabilities, the Francophone and temporary foreign worker communities. Partnering with community legal clinics and drawing on their local knowledge, the Project also builds the clinics’ capacity to provide rights’ expertise and employment law support, increasingly needed in an era of precarious employment and declining union representation.
A large demographic of the people we are helping ultimately are living with both financial issues and disabilities, invisible and visible, which is adding to the stress of navigating the legal system,” (Emily Keene, staff lawyer, Mobile Project)
Not a time to cutback on legal needs of Ontario workers
A recent independent review found the pilot Project, made permanent earlier this year, delivered good value for money (78% of clients interviewed said they would have given up on their employment issues without its support). However legal aid cuts in the Ford government’s April budget threaten to restrict Project services and reach.
This could not come at a worse time. Many of the worker protections in legislation (Bill 148, 2017) resulting from the Changing Workplaces Review, including increased inspections for employment standards violations, were wiped out by the new government’s Bill 47, Making Ontario Open for Business Act, 2018. The April 2019 Budget cuts of $306 million to Ministry of Labour funding further emphasized employer self-regulation in “modernizing” compliance, promising “automated digital tools to help employers educate themselves to be self-reliant on understanding their obligations under the Employment Standards Act”).
In addition to fearing what legal aid cuts mean for employment law support provided by the Mobile Justice Project, the region’s community legal clinics are impacted also by devastating cutbacks to specialty clinics providing province-wide legal support for workers’ compensation and health and safety issues, and by their own reduced clinic funding.
- Mojtehedzadeh, Sara. 2019 Jun. 16. “Pilot Project Aimed at Protecting Workers Fears Impact of Ford Government Cuts.” Toronto Star
- Chatham Voice. 2017 Sep. 13. “Legal Aid Clinic Expands to Include Help for Employment Law Issues.”
- Vosko, Leah F., Andrea M. Noack & Eric Tucker. Employment Standards Enforcement: A Scan of Employment Standards Complaints And Workplace Inspections and Their Resolution Under The Employment Standards Act, 2000. Toronto: Queen’s Printer, 2016.