The power of grassroots organizing was demonstrated yesterday when the Ontario government announced improved protection for marginalized workers. The proposed changes to the Employment Standards Act (ESA) will make it easier for workers to access their rights when they have been violated; and will make it harder for employers to exploit these workers. The changes will also provide greater protection for migrant workers in Ontario. The Workers’ Action Centre and Migrant Workers’ Alliance for Change have worked tirelessly to bring these legislative changes about.
Employment standards establish a minimum floor so that workers with the least ability to negotiate fair wages and working conditions are protected from having to endure working conditions that we collectively decide are unacceptable. These include: minimum wages, hours of work and payment for holidays and over time. Recent immigrants and racialized workers are more likely to have these rights violated. And, recent research shows that they are widespread. The proposed changes to the ESA will make it easier for people whose rights have been violated to access enforcement and will take steps to modernize the ESA by improving protection for the increasing numbers of people who work for temp agencies.
There is also enhanced protection for migrant workers. The rapid expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has had a negative impact on migrant workers and on the labour market as a whole. Workers with status have to compete for jobs with those without status or effective rights to enforce them. This moves wages and working conditions toward the lowest common denominator. The proposed legislation will take steps to address this.
An increasing share of Ontario workers are paid minimum wage, and we know that this work is not distributed equally. Women, racialized workers and recent immigrants are more likely to be working at minimum wage and in the kinds of jobs that are likely to include rights violations. This legislation will have a positive impact on these workers, decreasing inequality across gender, racialized groups and immigration status.
There is a large literature that describes the impact of employment conditions on health outcomes. Pathways include the health impacts of income, social inclusion and employment conditions. The Whitehall study first described the impact of workplace relationships on health outcomes; Canadian research on precarious work sheds light on the health impact of precarious work arrangements. We have recent data on the negative impact of working poverty on health.
These proposed changes in legislation will increase incomes and increase the ability of marginalized workers to enforce their rights. Reducing inequality in this way will improve the health of Ontarians. These changes are an important step in addressing labour market inequality. They need to be accompanied by an increase in the minimum wage and modernizing of the Labour Relations Act to provide more marginalized workers with a fair chance to join a union.