Ontario’s outdated labour laws can do little to remedy the dramatic power imbalance that exists between well-heeled company owners and their employees
By: Chris Buckley Published on Sun May 01 2016
This week, a new study found widespread workplace abuse facing Chinese restaurant workers in Toronto. The story revealed the seedy underbelly of a food service industry that many of us take for granted when we treat the family to a night out, but what do we know about the workers who bring us the food we put on our tables at home?
At nearly every stage of food production, from picking to packing to plating, there are appalling stories of vulnerable and precarious employees who barely earn enough to buy the food they serve.
Right now, in an industrial plaza tucked in the shadow of Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, there is another story breaking that exposes the legislative shortcomings that are failing workers even further down the food chain.
A group of 12 Tibetan produce pickers, working for Fresh Taste Produce out of the Ontario Food Terminal, are one week into a strike as they fight for their very first collective agreement. Almost every one of them is a refugee, who came to Canada after a decades-long flight from persecution that left their families stateless. They are not people who are accustomed to having the law on their side but their stories are similar to many people who seek asylum and new opportunities in Canada.
These immigrant workers start their warehouse shifts while the city sleeps, sorting the produce you find at your local big box grocery store for wages that range from $14 to $17 an hour. Some have worked there for 19 years. Without a union, many haven’t had a raise in nearly a decade and all of them earn wages well below the other workers at the terminal who benefit from union protection.
Last November, these workers took the bold step of voting to join a union.
It was a process that they rightly expected to end with a contract but, after five months of seeking wages, benefits and pensions on par with their counterparts, they are still without a first contract. Their only recourse was to go on strike, while the law allows their indifferent employer to simply bus temp agency workers past them to do their jobs.
The use of replacement workers undermines what little leverage the law gives employees and the hardship of strike pay wears at their resolve. With no automatic mechanism to bring both parties to an arbitrated settlement, callous employers can simply play the waiting game. That is what happened at Crown Metal Packaging, which left striking workers dangling on a North York picket line for over two years.
It is a frequent scenario that illustrates just how little Ontario’s outdated labour laws can do to remedy the dramatic power imbalance that exists between well-heeled company owners and the increasingly precarious employees who work for them.
While in principle, most workers in Ontario have the right to associate for the purposes of collective bargaining; in practice they face barriers at every step of the process, not to mention bullying, intimidation and harassment from their employer.
Since the mid-1990s, Ontario has seen a dramatic growth in income inequality. During that time, anti-union legislation has given employers in the public and private sectors more confidence and scope to undermine the influence of employees over their working conditions by subverting their ability to join a union and collectively negotiate at the bargaining table.
It is time to restore balance and fairness to Ontario workplaces.
For the first time in over 20 years, the Ontario government has opened up the laws pertaining to employment standards and labour relations across the province. In doing so, it has given hope to many Ontario workers, like the 12 Tibetan refugees who are standing up to Fresh Taste Produce. They work alongside unionized employees whose superior salaries and job security provide daily evidence that union membership can be a pathway out of poverty.
One of the Fresh Taste workers recently said, “Before the union, we were worried about losing our jobs, but now we know that we can support each other and we have the confidence to stand up for our rights.”
He and millions of other Ontario workers are counting on the Wynne government to overhaul the Labour Relations Act and make it fair for everyone.
Chris Buckley is president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.