Freeing temp workers from work-permit rules will help businesses, too

If the federal government wants to provide quick and straightforward reforms to a vexed labour dispute between workplace agencies and temp workers, it’s going to have to get Ontario on board. Travelling to Victoria…

Freeing temp workers from work-permit rules will help businesses, too

If the federal government wants to provide quick and straightforward reforms to a vexed labour dispute between workplace agencies and temp workers, it’s going to have to get Ontario on board.

Travelling to Victoria on Thursday, Ontario labour Minister Kevin Flynn did not win the labour strife in British Columbia over a new provincewide compliance regime for temporary workers.

It’s a big deal. The 20,000 seasonal workers have been working under an old system from before Canada’s Employment Standards Act, much to the frustration of both agencies who have been threatened with fines and local businesses who have been paying temporary workers who have no rights in the province.

And now the federal government is poised to introduce legislation that will close the loophole, for now. The former federal government could have simply ratified labour changes already approved by the provincial Liberals. Instead, it chose to get involved as other provinces were falling in line.

The federal government has wanted to get involved since it said it inherited “significant systemic issues” when it took office. The Liberals in Ottawa must be pleased now that provincial Tories are accepting their help to fix a problem of their own creation.

Premier Doug Ford says the fine on agencies represents the end of a year-long fight with temp workers in B.C. that is obviously a boon for his government. But a compromise between agencies and employers would be great for everyone. Here’s hoping he continues to push for concrete changes to a system that needs fixing.

McClatchy has a good explainer on the British Columbia temp agency dispute. For instance, hourly workers who apply for jobs cannot change jobs, in the same area or at the same time, for six months, without the permission of their original employer. (Lunchroom employees are exempted. Employment Standards Act experts confirm this.)

Why is that a problem? Because agencies are able to stop temp workers from moving around in search of higher-paying jobs, and because the higher-paying jobs go to those who bring in new temporary workers. From a legal perspective, that’s called poaching. Labour inspectors need to be able to impose fines on the agencies for poaching and to work with employers to discourage poaching.

Clearly, B.C.’s current system isn’t working. Fines have been imposed. Fines need to be enforced. And agencies should have to train their temp workers to stick to local employment agencies, rather than automatically agreeing to take them elsewhere.

The real problem here is that businesses have tried to accommodate the temporary workers with no rules governing them. That’s a good thing; what’s not good is the contingency plans, used by some businesses, to exploit them. The governments can work to change that and reduce the jobs gap between old and new workers.

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