Compliance initiative recovers $1.5 million in lost wages for Ontario construction workers

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Image from LiUNA Local 837 in Hamilton

By Kristen Frisa
Special to Ontario Construction Report

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour says it was able to recover more than $1.5 million for construction workers through a province-wide compliance initiative.

The recovered money was from unpaid public holiday pay, overtime wages, and vacation pay, says Ontario’s Ministry of Labour (MOL).

Inspections took place from May 1 to Aug. 31, 2018, and are said to have helped educate and raise awareness of the rules included in the Employment Standards Act (ESA).

MOL says: “Construction workers may be at greater risk of having their employment standards rights violated as many work in seasonal, part-time or temporary jobs that fall outside the traditional employment relationship of full-time, permanent employment with one employer.”

Manuel Bastos, business manager of LiUNA (Laborers International Union of North America) Local 837 in Hamilton, says he’s seen these types of abuses in non-unionized environments. “I’ve been made aware of some people in my community, in Hamilton, telling me they’re making $13 an hour, and no statutory holiday pay,” he says.

Bastos says ESA violations rarely occur within the unionized environment. He says when he works with signatory contractors to bring new entrants onto job sites, he insists they get paid at least minimum wage, even if their percentage in the employment agreement works out to less than that.

“In other words, if the minimum wage is $14, and 60 percent of $22 is $13.20, we tell them, even though that’s the agreement that you have to pay over the $14 dollars,” Bastos says.

Bastos says when he hears from workers who aren’t getting the pay they deserve, he encourages them to make a complaint through the ESA.

“I told them it’s very simple, you go to Employment Standards Act, they don’t take your name, they go and investigate and they get your money back,” Bastos says.

In an emailed statement MOL says that tips from employees are just one catalyst for compliance inspections. “Proactive inspections and initiatives are performed in sectors that the Ministry has identified through risk-based analysis, local intelligence program priorities and third-party information,” the statement said.

Employment standards officers (ESO) have the authority to take action to ensure recompense to workers. “When an ESO finds that an employer has not followed the ESA after completing an inspection, the employer is asked to voluntarily pay the amount found owing. In the majority of cases, voluntary payment is made and employees get what is owing to them,” said the MOL.

The Ministry of Labour reports a 93 per cent voluntary compliance rate from the latest initiative.

MOL says if the employer fails to pay voluntarily, the ministry has enforcement tools such as Orders to Pay to achieve compliance. In either case, employers that have been found violating ESA rules can be re-inspected at a later date.

The Employment Standards Act provides the minimum standards for most employees working in Ontario, such as fair pay, adequate breaks, and days off for illness and vacations. ESA posters are mandated to be placed around work spaces so that employees know their rights under the Act.

The ministry says it takes action to ensure workplace understanding of the ESA. “The ministry undertakes a number of initiatives and provides a variety of resources and tools to assist employers and employees with understanding their responsibilities and rights under the ESA.” It also says it’s the employer’s responsibility to understand the Act and abide by it.

Bastos says the workers he’s spoken with know when their rights are being violated, but fear retribution if they make a complaint against their employers.

“It’s very sad to see someone getting cheated out of what they’re entitled to,” he says.

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