Temp workers to get new protections
Province will introduce law to crack down on what minister calls ‘modern-day slavery’
“I’m going to make sure that we have the highest fines in the country.”
MONTE MCNAUGHTON LABOUR MINISTER
Temporary help agencies and recruiters will soon need to be licensed and vetted by the province to operate, in an effort to improve accountability and enforcement in a sector known for widespread violations.
New labour legislation expected to be announced Monday will, if passed, give workers “unprecedented protection and security,” Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said — signalling to law-breaking agencies that their “time is up.”
In an interview with the Star, McNaughton called abuse in the sector “completely unacceptable.”
“There’s no other way to describe what’s happening in Ontario than modern-day slavery,” he said. “It’s unacceptable and it’s ending now.”
Under the proposed new licensing regime, agencies and recruiters will be provincially vetted and will need to provide a security payment in the form of a bond. Where wage theft occurs or illegal recruitment fees are levied, that bond can be used to recover workers’ money.
Over the past year, ministry inspections of temp agencies have identified $3.3 million in unpaid entitlements owed to workers. New reform plans include stricter penalties for rulebreakers and a specialized task force to identify exploitation, resulting in what McNaughton
calls “Canada’s most comprehensive system to ensure that agencies and recruiters are playing by the rules.”
“I’m going to make sure that we have the highest fines in the country,” he said. “We’re also immediately putting a dedicated team of inspectors out on the ground within the next number of weeks.”
In a round of consultations on temp agencies initiated late last year, a trifecta of workers’ rights organizations — Parkdale Community Legal Services, the Workers’ Action Centre and Migrant Workers Alliance for Change — said basic legislation must be strengthened to protect against wage theft, illegal recruitment fees and safety violations. A licensing system was among the recommendations, echoing existing regimes in Western Canada, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
The groups also called on authorities to make employers, recruiters and agencies jointly liable for all workplace standards including injuries, which Monday’s proposed reforms do not address.
However, the new legislation will subject both unlicensed recruiters and their client companies to possible penalties, including when those agencies operate overseas to bring foreign workers to Canada.
Advocates have also long called on government to reduce incentives for employers to use temp agency workers, who are often paid less than directly hired workers, typically do not receive benefits and can be easily terminated.
To that end, the previous Liberal government introduced a number of reforms to the temp agency sector, including mandating equal pay for temporary and permanent employees doing the same work.
The Ford government subsequently reversed the measure, along with scheduled minimum wage hikes and paid sick day entitlements for all workers.
McNaughton told the Star his government would soon be “coming forward with other changes to ensure that we’re protecting all workers in Ontario and ensuring that they have more takehome pay.”
But Monday’s announcement is aimed at lifting the “veil of secrecy” in the temp agency sector, he said.
“My goal here is to shine a light on what’s happening out there.”
A Star investigation has previously found that the number of temporary help agencies in Ontario has steadily increased over the past decade, and that agency workers in blue-collar jobs are twice as likely as their directly hired counterparts to be injured at work.
But a Star analysis of thousands of temp agency addresses found many in the GTA were little more than PO boxes or sometimes even empty plots of land — making enforcement action difficult.
McNaughton said the issue has been a priority since he assumed leadership of the ministry in 2019, the same year authorities extracted more than 60 migrant workers from a labour trafficking ring near Simcoe County. The recruiters were found to be charging workers illegal fees and controlling their movement.
The labour minister said the pandemic has only heightened the urgency for reform, with precarious working arrangements often driving workplace outbreaks. Last year, Rogelio Muñoz Santos died of COVID-19 after being recruited from Mexico by an agency to work on an Ontario farm.
“The pandemic has lifted a veil on some of the things that are happening across Ontario,” he said. “No one should have to sleep on straw mattresses and no one should have their passports locked away.”
There are more than 2,250 temp agencies currently operating in Ontario and an estimated 128,000 employees hired through them, according to Workplace Safety and Insurance Board data.
Asked how the province intends to tackle employers who turn to temp agencies to lighten costs and liabilities,
McNaughton said he believed looming labour shortages will “drive a lot of changes.”
“Businesses are going to actually have to do things differently. They’re going to have to pay their workers more. They’re going to have to provide benefits, look at things like pensions and ensuring that they have a safe working environment.”
“We are moving forward with a number of other initiatives in the next number of weeks to rebalance those scales to protect workers,” he said.
“There’s been big corporations that have done well during this pandemic, and they need to ensure that they’re looking after their workers.”