Jonathan Ozols fought his boss for four years to get stolen pay (Vince Talotta / Toronto Star)
CRIME PAYS BIG FOR MANY BOSSES IN ONTARIO. They steal millions in wages from the people who work for them. More often than not they get away with it.
Ontario bosses filched about $6.8M out of the pockets of their workers in every single year between 2009 and 2016—$47.5M all told. They got to keep most of it.
A 2016 government-commissioned study found the bosses got to keep $28M (about 60%) of the wages they stole.
Workers can’t count on government to do much about it. There are no regular workplace checkups or inspections. If workers don’t complain, nothing happens.
Workers afraid to complain
“Our study showed that (Employment Standards Act) enforcement is still largely complaint driven but that many employees face barriers, like fear of retaliation, that inhibit them from making complaints,” said Leah Vosko, one of the lead researchers.
Since 2012, the ministry of labour has launched just 41 prosecutions against almost 23,000 law-breaking bosses. That means, barely one in every 500 bosses found guilty of breaking the labour laws on pay is ever prosecuted. But Jonathan Ozols, 30, made sure his boss was one who was.
Jonathan is a restaurant worker in Toronto. He fought and finally won a battle in September 2016 to get more than $875 his boss refused to pay him. It took him four years. He wants to see a better enforcement system, one that evens out the balance between workers rights and bosses might.
"I'd like to see a law with some teeth in it,” says Jonathon, “even you know a baby tooth. Right now it seems like crime does pay, if you’re a boss."
“Health inspections are very stringent, they come by quite often, and they’re very thorough,” says Jonathon. “I think (we should have) the same kind of thing with labour—they need to come in every two or three months, look over everything, make sure everything is safe, workers’ rights, wages, pay, breaks, everything.”
Bosses often slip through
The complaints system is supposed to be simple enough for workers to use without the help of a lawyer, but critics say it is complicated and inaccessible. Legal clinics are now trying to expand free services to precarious workers to help them when their rights are violated by their bosses.
The researchers also found that even when the ministry finds violations penalties are rarely imposed on employers. Worse still, the formal dispute resolution system often gives employers a way to wriggle out of paying workers all they are owed.
The study shows that bosses in the accommodation and food services industry were the most likely to break the law: 78 per cent of complaints assessed by the ministry in that sector turned up violations. Across all industries, 85 per cent of assessed complaints about unpaid wages or termination pay were found to be valid.
“The total entitlements that workers are assessed as being owed can be substantial,” the report goes on to say. “About half are consistently for $1,000 or more, a loss which may result in employees’ inability to meet their basic expenses, or cause them to incur debt.”
Need more than paper rights
Avvy Go is director of Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. She says, “I think more prosecutions, more penalties, more notices of violations — all of those are very important.”
"At the end of the day, you can have all the best protections in the world. But if the employees cannot have their rights enforced, if their rights only exist on paper, it is not going to improve anything."
The study recommends numerous fixes, including expanding the ministry’s workplace inspection blitzes instead of relying on workers risking their jobs to make a complaint. It also suggests making the complaints process safer and more accessible, for example, by allowing workers to make anonymous or third-party complaints.
It also says that re-establishing a provincial wage-protection fund, which pays out workers when the money hasn’t been recovered from their bosses, could be “the most straightforward and certain way” to guarantee wage-theft victims get what they are owed.