Our experiences with employment and in the workplace have a profound effect on all aspects of our lives, including our health.[i] For example, workers in low-wage employment tend to have shorter life expectancies and poorer health outcomes.[ii] Poor working conditions increase the risk of job injury and occupational diseases.[iii] And, poor working conditions affect not only workers themselves, but also their families and communities. Employment anxiety related to precarious work may affect family life, social interaction and community engagement.[iv] The evidence is clear that poorer employment and working conditions are disproportionately borne by disadvantaged groups, including single parents, racialized persons, newcomers, indigenous persons, and persons with disabilities, among others.[v] Labour and employment law and policy have clear health – and health equity – implications.
These issues are increasingly pressing. Non-standard and precarious work are more common, with negative effects on the health of workers and their communities. Labour and employment legislation has not yet caught up to these new realities.
For this reason, Wellesley Institute welcomed the Changing Workplaces Review launched by the Ontario Ministry of Labour in 2015. We co-authored, with Toronto Public Health, a submission to the Review which outlined 17 recommendations for strengthening Ontario’s labour and employment laws – and ultimately improving the health of workers and communities. We now welcome the Final Report of the Changing Workplaces Review and congratulate the Special Advisors on the completion of this very important undertaking.
Wellesley Institute supports the guiding principle of the Review, that reforms to labour and employment laws should be guided by the widely accepted principle of “decent work.” Applying the principle of decent work to reform of Ontario’s employment laws requires changes that strengthen protections for those in non-standard work, broadens access to health benefits, and reduces job insecurity.
Wellesley Institute was pleased to see so many of its recommendations reflected in the Final Report. Of particular value are the proposals to:
- Extend employment standards protections to interns and trainees
- Restrict differential pay for part-time, temporary, seasonal, casual and contract employees
- Limit the amount of time during which temporary agency employees can be paid less than those hired directly
- Extend Personal Emergency Leave to workplaces with less than 50 employees, and to expand its length to 7 days, with a separate entitlement to 3 days of bereavement leave.
These reforms, if taken up by the government, will provide many more Ontarians with access to “decent work,” and count as action on the social determinants of health to improve health and health equity. The Wellesley Institute looks forward to seeing the Ministry of Labour’s plan for implementation, including the timelines and benchmarks.
However, a significant omission is paid sick leave, an essential component to protecting the health of workers. Too many low-wage employees in Ontario are forced to make a difficult choice when they are ill and may feel compelled to risk their health and that of their fellow employees rather than their pay.[vi] As well, Wellesley Institute remains concerned by the lack of access for many employees to health and dental benefits. Our recent research shows very low coverage rates for these groups. Workers and their families may delay or forego altogether essential health and dental care.[vii]
The Final Report deals comprehensively with issues of enforcement, including protections against reprisals, strategic and systemic enforcement initiatives, and public education. These are important steps to ensuring that these reforms become a reality in workers’ lives. However, more must be done to ensure that change meets the needs of Ontarians and that our laws and policies allow us to continue to adapt to massive change. Two key steps can be taken.
First, these reforms should be accompanied by strategies for better collection and dissemination of information about both the labour market and the effectiveness of employment standards processes. Given the differential effect of poor employment and working conditions on marginalized groups, data collection should include socio-demographic information, to help us measure the degree to which reforms are moving us towards greater equity.
Second, building on this data collection, a strategy should be developed for monitoring and re-evaluating on a regular basis. This will enable us to track the progress of implementation and the effects of change, to determine whether reforms are meeting the goals set by the Final Report, and to adjust as needed.
Wellesley Institute believes that the Changing Workplaces Final Report provides a once in a generation opportunity to address the root causes of poor health among Ontarians: low income, insecurity, stress, and lack of access to health benefits. We look forward to seeing legislative reform that effectively addresses these challenging workplace trends, and thereby strengthens Ontario workers, families and communities.
[i] Avendano, M. & Berkman, L. (2014). Labor markets, employment policies, and health. In L.F. Berkman, I. Kawachi & M.M. Glymour (Eds.), Social Epidemiology (2nd ed.), (pp.182-233). New York: Oxford University Press.
[ii] McIntosh, CN, Fines P, Wilkins R & Wolfson, MC. (2009). Income disparities in health-adjusted life expectancy for Canadian adults, 1991 to 2001, Health Reports, 20(4).
[iii] Quinlan, M., Mayhew, C. & Philip, B. (2001). The global Expansion of Precarious Employment, Work Disorganization, and Consequences for Occupational Health: A Review of Recent Research, International Journal of Health Services, 31(2): 335-414.
[iv] United Way and McMaster University (2015). The Precarity Penalty: The impact of employment precarity on individuals, households and communities – and what to do about it.
[v] Law Commission of Ontario (2012). Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Work. Toronto.
[vi] American Public Health Association (2013). Support for Paid Sick Leave and Family Leave Policies. https://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2014/07/16/11/05/support-for-paid-sick-leave-and-family-leave-policies
[vii] Barnes, S. (2015). Low earnings, unfilled prescriptions: Employer-provided health benefit coverage in Canada. Wellesley Institute.