How would you feel if you got robbed but couldn’t report to the police unless you had first confronted the robber and asked for your wallet back?
That’s how construction worker Raul Aguilera described his battle for unpaid wages against a former employer under British Columbia’s employment standards enforcement system.
Ontario is set to adopt the same mechanism under Bill 68, the Open for Business Act, which will change the employment standards regulations, among other legislations, to encourage investment in the province.
“This is ridiculous,” said Aguilera, 44, who came to Canada from Mexico as a skilled worker in 2000 and now lives in Toronto. “It puts the whole burden on workers. The process is hard and frustrating.”
The bill — the subject of a one-day public hearing Tuesday — mandates workers to first confront the employer before filing a complaint on disputes such as working conditions, owed wages, wrongful dismissal, vacation and overtime pay.
It would also allow employment standards officers to facilitate settlements, currently a responsibility of trained Ontario Labour Relations Boardadjudicators.
The changes are part of the province’s employment standards modernization strategy to reduce the 14,000 workers’ claims in backlog.
But critics fear the “mandatory self-enforcement” approach would adversely affect all Ontario workers, especially those in low-paying temp jobs and newcomers with language barriers.
“You don’t reduce backlog by creating more barriers to discourage complaints,” said Fred Hahn, president of the 230,000-member Canadian Union of Public Employees in Ontario.
In 2002, when B.C. introduced the “self-help” system, labour claims immediately dropped 46 per cent, said Mary Gellatly of Parkdale Community Legal Services.
She attributed Ontario’s backlog to the dwindling enforcement resources and closing of claims intake-offices across the province in 2006. Ontario’s 78 legal clinics handled 20,000 employment standards claims in 2008.
Aguilera, an installer, worked for a Vancouver construction company in 2005 and was owed $600. He spent days to study the labour ministry’s self-help kit before he learned to calculate the amount of unpaid wages and completed the complex complaint form.
To show ministry staff his attempt to resolve the dispute, Aguilera called and faxed his employer, but to no avail. Finally, he went to the boss’ work site.
“He refused to pay me and just started pushing me really hard. I was afraid. I just left,” recalled Aguilera, whose case was finally accepted by the ministry after he detailed the confrontation.
Yufen Wu, a nanny from China, was owed two months of salary and overtime pay by a Burlington family of seven. She was immediately terminated in October after her boss was notified of a complaint she filed earlier.
When she called the family to recoup the unpaid wages, she was contacted by police and threatened with harassment charges.
“This bill would give employers even more power and make it worse for workers,” said Wu.
The labour ministry proposes to exempt certain workers from mandatory self-enforcement: young workers, live-in caregivers, people with language barriers or a disability, workers afraid to contact the employer or when the employer has closed or gone bankrupt.
“These exemptions are just confusing patchwork,” said Deena Ladd of Toronto’s Workers Action Centre, which will launch a public campaign and video Tuesday about the repercussions of Bill 68.
“How do you decide whose English is not good enough and who is not afraid to confront the employer?”