There is a long proud line of labour reporters who over the years have influenced labour policy by shining a spotlight on abusive labour practices. As the newspaper industry for survival in the electronic age, labour reporters have been given white slips, sometime replaced by gossip columnists whose stories get more website hits.
But here in Canada there are still some great labour reporters, and my favorite
for the past few years has been Sara Mojtehedzadeh at the Toronto Star. Sara has focused on vulnerable workers in a series of great stories. However her latest investigative piece reaches new heights. Already it has put the Minister of Labour on the defensive, forcing him to concede that new laws are needed to deal with companies that exploit the use of temp placement agencies to avoid hiring their own full time employees.
The piece is called “Undercover in Temp Nation“. Read it. Then read it again. This article will be used in work law and work study courses for years to come. Sara went undercover as a temp worker at a large Toronto industrial baker called Fiera Foods, a company I pass on my drive to York University and that I have never paid any attention to before. The story describes how three temp workers have already been killed in accidents at Fiera Foods. It also notes that the Ontario Liberals lauded Fiera in 2013 for creating “good jobs”, how it has received millions of dollars in tax payer subsidies, and how it donated $25,000 to the Liberals since 2010.
Sara describes a modern day sweatshop staffed by an army of workers, the vast
majority of whom do not work for Fiera but rather are employed by a ‘temp agency’ called Magnus. Magnus is a virtual temp agency (it has no physical work site where employees go) “hires” Sara without ever meeting her and assigns her to Fierra Foods. She is given 5 minutes of ‘training’ and begins work on a gruelling pastry assembly line. To collect her pay, she is told to go to a non-descript money lender store on Steeles Avenue called “Cashmania”, where she is given cash and told that Magnus employees do not receive pay stubs and no statutory deductions are made. It’s all under the table and off the records.
Of immediate interest to us work law folks is the long series of illegalities described in the story. Rather than list them, I will leave you the reader to identity what potential statutory violations arise in the story. I will just note as a hint that there are multiple statutes engaged. (Special nudge: Do any human rights issues arise in the story?)
Questions and Issues for Discussion
The government says it is exploring how to regulate temp agencies to discourage employers from using them instead of hiring full-time employees.
So far the government has focused on a law requiring temp workers to be paid equal to full-time employees of the company they are assigned to. The idea is that this will remove the incentive for business to use temps. Do you think that idea will work?
Sara the reporter notes that such a law would have little effect at a place like Fiera because virtually all of the workers are temps and they are paid just barely above minimum wage in any event.
Another benefit to employers of using temp agencies is that legally the workers are employees of the temp company and not the ‘client’ business they are assigned to. Therefore, workers’ compensation premiums must be paid by the temp agencies and the client saves on those costs. Should the government require that workers’ comp premiums are the responsibility of the client of the temp agency? Would that make a difference in the use of temps?
What about a law that restricted the use of temps to a certain percentage of a client’s workforce? Is that law workable in practice? Why or why not?
What about unionization? The Ontario government has proposed in Bill 148 to introduce ‘card check certification’ in the temp placement agency, along with a requirement for the temp employer to provide a list of names and contract information. This may enable unions to organize temp workers and bargain collective agreements. What if any obstacles do you foresee arising in relation to the unionization of temp agencies?
What other options exist to legislate in a manner that would discourage companies from using precarious temp workers rather than hire their own employees?