August 29, 2011

Pay the Workers Their Wages

LOOK! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. (James 5:4)
Workers at a pizza franchise in Toronto worked for months without getting paid. When the Ministry of labour finally looked into the case, they found the employer guilty of not paying its workers. But the government failed to follow through and make sure the workers received their pay.

Workers at a pizza franchise in Toronto worked for months without getting paid. Photo: William Stadler
Door-to-door marketers for a major Canadian cable company faced a similar problem. After weeks of canvassing, they were paid only 10% of what they were owed. The company avoided responsibility by contracting out the work, and the workers were considered independent subcontractors. It turned out that neither the cable company nor the contractor were liable to pay the missing wages.
Throughout the 1990s, governments at both the federal and provincial level tried to revamp social programs to encourage more people to move into paid work. The rationale was that a job is the best route out of poverty. But for many people, that has not been the case. One reason is that some jobs just do not pay enough. That is why people across Canada have been working to achieve living wages. (See the Catalyst, spring 2007, for an article describing different approaches to achieving living wages.)
The extent of the problem
However, for many workers, the problem goes beyond low wage rates. Like those harvesters in the letter of James, many Canadian workers are not even being paid their due.
Most Canadian families are putting in a lot more paid work today than a generation ago (Yalnizyan, 2007). For the 40% of families at the bottom, that extra work has yielded a drop in income. Think of that. By 2004, those families put in nearly 8 weeks more paid work per year than their counterparts did in 1976. Yet, their real earnings fell by a whopping 35%. Working harder just to fall behind.
This drop in earnings reflects changes in the Canadian labour market (Vosko, Zukewich, & Cranford, 2003). Throughout the 1990s, more workers found themselves in part-time jobs, temporary jobs, working for temp agencies or self-employed. This kind of employment is known as precarious work. It generally pays low wages, provides few if any benefits, and offers no job security.
The problems run deeper. The pizza workers and door-to-door marketers are just two examples of a serious problem plaguing Canadian workers: unpaid wages, unpaid overtime, minimum labour standards not enforced. Many so-called independent workers, like the marketers, are not really independent at all. But, when employers contract out work to these self-employed workers, they do not have to abide by provincial or federal employment standards. They do not even have to pay the minimum wage.
As well, even for workers who are employees, labour standards are not properly enforced. It is no surprise that a large number of workers in these situations are new to Canada. They may not be familiar with Canadian labour laws, nor feel confident enough to challenge unfair labour practices. So, most complaints come only after an employee has left their job.
What can be done?
Ensuring that paid work does work for Canadian families requires not only that minimum wages be raised to a decent level, but also that employment standards be better enforced and updated to the new labour market realities (Workers’ Action Centre, 2007;Saunders, 2006) .
It requires information campaigns to make workers and employers fully aware of employment standards.
It requires governments to invest more resources into enforcement. Currently, governments deal with labour standards complaints on an individual basis, seeking redress for an employee, usually after they have left their job. Better enforcement means that individual complaints should trigger a full inspection of an employer’s labour practices to make sure other employees are treated fairly. Unannounced workplace inspections, especially in industries with high incidence of labour standard infringements, are another necessary ingredient.
Labour standards also need to be upgraded to better regulate the temp agency sector and to clarify the employment relationships between contractors and independent workers, for example.
In his review of federal labour standards, Harry Arthurs grounded his work on the following principles:
Labour standards should ensure that no matter how limited his or her bargaining power, no worker … is offered, accepts or works under conditions that Canadians would not regard as “decent.” No worker should therefore receive a wage that is insufficient to live on; be deprived of the payment of wages or benefits to which they are entitled; be subject to coercion, discrimination, indignity or unwarranted danger in the workplace; or be required to work so many hours that he or she is effectively denied a personal or civic life (Federal Labour Standards Review, 2006).
Those principles reflect the message in the letter of James. Implementing them is necessary if we hope to ensure that Canadian families receive fair recompense for the hours they work. It is the work of public justice – work required of employers, of governments and of citizens demanding justice in Canada’s workplaces.
This article first appeared The Catalyst, summer 2007, Volume 30 / Number 3
Works Cited
Federal Labour Standards Review. (2006). Fairness at Work: Federal Labour Standards for the 21st Century. Ottawa: Government of Canada.
Saunders, R. (2006, May). Making Work Pay: Findings and Recommendations. Research Highlights. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc.
Vosko, L. F., Zukewich, N., &; Cranford, C. (2003, October). Precarious Jobs: A New Typology of Employment. Perspectives on Labour and Income.
Workers' Action Centre. (2007). Working on the Edge. Toronto: Workers' Action Cetner.
Yalnizyan, A. (2007). The Rich and the Rest of Us. Toronto: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative.

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