As Ontario’s government continues to restructure the civil service with outsourced contract workers who aren’t entitled to the same rights as permanent employees, the new premier’s choice of a lawyer that stands at odds with his party’s position on the issue is growing more troubling.
Daniel Collins was revealed in a recent op-ed to be representing companies that have been shortchanged as part of an employee-row lawsuit initiated by agencies for the Greater Toronto Area. Collins has also represented workers organizing for a so-called “living wage” by providing companies with free on-site counsel.
This raises questions about whether Collins’s work will jeopardize government contracts with certain small businesses and potentially lead to mistreatment of temp workers, who are vulnerable to wage theft, forced overtime and other forms of mistreatment.
The Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) in Ontario operates under the terms of an agreement signed by the original Ontario Liberal government. This agreement states that temporary workers are covered by the same labour law, which protects them and forbids employers from mistreating them.
Yet just last week, The Toronto Star revealed that the new Progressive Conservative government’s new civil service budget slashed the number of legal positions at the WCB by more than 25 per cent, as well as salaries for many positions. The result: Hundreds of new contracting opportunities for temp agencies.
A 2013 report by the WCB on the state of the province’s temporary employee workforce found that 40 per cent of contracting firms use temporary employees to fill positions open year-round. These are workers who don’t receive sick pay or other benefits that many employees receive.
Such contracts can also expose contingent workers to wage theft. A 2015 report by the MADD Campaign for Drunk Driving noted that another 40 per cent of such contracted workers were underpaid and even often prevented from working overtime hours.
There’s also concern that the new government’s announcement on July 1 that it will expand public service contracts to include other types of short-term workers, including security personnel, bus drivers and retail workers, could put more temporary workers at risk of mistreatment as the government focuses more on short-term contracts.
This isn’t an abstract concern. As a contract attorney for a London-based staffing agency and a worker I’ve observed plenty of employers mistreating workers, using abusive practices to save a buck or two. Those employers that mistreat workers risk losing their contracts with employers who are following the rules and paying workers more fairly.
Premier Doug Ford’s appointment of Collins to represent temporary agency workers means that the government is shifting away from the policies that earned it favour across the country, including in Ontario, where the Progressive Conservatives were defeated by the Liberals in the recent election.
Ontario’s WCB is going to need to keep the steel and rubber workers who drive buses, security guards and other temporary workers that are covered by the union contracts and fighting the contract provisions for the benefits. Employees should be able to come to work. To do that, it is going to need to negotiate safe work arrangements that cover all types of temporary workers.
With wages and benefits as well as labour law and workplace standards, the WCB is a world leader. This victory has been only possible because it is funded by members that pay dues to employees to participate in collective bargaining.
If the WCB is set to become a landlord to some clients of independent contractor lawyers, it’s going to take a long time for workers to get fully protected under the WCB’s own members and others. And as long as these positions are offered by the government, they will inevitably open to subcontracting by private firms. This won’t just affect workers; companies will lose out too, as they will face greater costs.
Ontario lost its chance to move forward under the Liberals. The new government is making a big mistake to see the situation for temporary agency workers as equal to those of permanent, full-time workers.
Too many people from all parties have walked this road, which is why we need a Progressive Conservative government that is willing to follow through on the progressive agenda it campaigned on.
Steve Farmer is executive director of the Toronto Employment Lawyers’ Association. Lorne Brand (r) is executive director of the Canadian Council of Private Legal Services and Labour Law Center of the University of Toronto. [email protected] and [email protected]