Employment legislation has a huge impact on workers’ rights. However, employment lawyers know all too well that well-meaning legislation often fails to translate into better conditions for workers, because some workers are excluded from its protection, or it is difficult to enforce.

Tomorrow, the Ontario government is set to pass Bill 18, a sweeping bill intended to strengthen existing labour and employment laws. While many of the proposed changes are to be welcomed, the proposals fail to address the problems with enforcing employees’ existing rights.

Ontario’s Bill 18: Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act

Bill 18, which passed Second Reading in the Ontario legislature on October 29, is what is known as an ‘omnibus’ bill: it includes amendments to several existing statutes affecting labour, employment, workers’ compensation and health and safety. Some of the highlights include:

  • Enhancing the protections for temporary foreign workers in Ontario;
  • Requiring employers to provide employees with information regarding their rights under the Employment Standards Act;
  • Removing the $10,000 cap on recovery for unpaid wages through a Ministry of Labour order to pay, and extending the time limit to recover wages;
  • Amending the definition of “worker” in the Occupational Health and Safety Act to extend coverage to co-op students, trainees and other unpaid workers;
  • Indexing minimum wage to the rate of inflation.

Motion for time allocation passed, limiting debate

The Liberals brought a motion on Monday, October 27 for “time allocation”, limiting debate of Bill 18 and expediting its passage. The government justified this move as following through on the strong mandate the Liberals received in the last provincial election to end the delays in passing important legislation.

Opposition members questioned this rationale for limiting debate, and emphasized that Bill 18 is incredibly important to workers across Ontario, meaning all affected parties, including precarious workers and interest groups, should have an opportunity to be heard. Peggy Sattler, an NDP MPP who has tabled her own private member’s bill seeking to improve rights for unpaid interns, pointed out that a curtailed debate will prevent discussion of the shortcomings of Bill 18, including the fact that enforcement of employment rights remains difficult for vulnerable employees, such as unpaid interns and migrant workers, because it is dependent on employee complaints.

Important rights may go unrealized

On the whole, Bill 18 is to be lauded for extending certain protections to various groups of vulnerable workers, who are currently excluded from employment regulations. These changes are encouraging as they appear to reflect a genuine desire to increase workers’ access to rights such as redress for unpaid wages, workers’ compensation, and health and safety. However, without a robust method of enforcing these rights, they may go unrealized for many workers.

Existing enforcement mechanisms based on employee complaints are problematic, because they depend on workers, who are often in a vulnerable position, knowing their rights and coming forward. Many workers may be unwilling to bring a complaint for fear of negative consequences in their employment. Our firm’s social justice intern last year, Daniel Tucker-Simmons, wrote a comprehensive report  on the problems with the current enforcement model for the Broadbent Institute.

As discussed in that report, an important step to improve the enforcement of employment standards legislation would be to repeal provisions enacted by the 2010 Open for Business Act that require employees to raise an alleged violation of the Employment Standards Act with their employer before being allowed to file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour. That amendment was widely criticized at the time, as most workers would be unwilling to directly confront their employers about violations of their rights. Repealing this requirement would improve the chances that the proposed new rights will be adequately enforced. Unfortunately, the limited debate of Bill 18 will prevent these and other issues from being the subject of appropriate discussion and review.

[This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, which cannot be given without consideration of your individual circumstances.]