December 2nd, 2014
Temporary workers, unpaid interns and foreign nationals will soon be better protected under amendments to Ontario’s employment laws. Employees will also be able to recover more of their unpaid wages from employers without going to court.
The Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, 2014, received royal assent on November 20, ushering in some much-needed changes to Ontario’s workplace laws. Formerly known as Bill 18, the Act amends five different labour and employment related statutes in Ontario, including the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA).
While there have been some criticisms that the changes don’t go far enough to protect vulnerable temporary workers, the Act does much to improve employees’ ability to claim unpaid wages, and ties the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index. Below are some of the key changes under the new act.
Temporary and Unpaid Workers
Under the previous ESA, assignment employees (those employees working for temp agencies) had no protections for unpaid wages. The new Act makes the temp agency and the contracting employer jointly and severally liable for certain unpaid wages, and introduces new record keeping requirements for such employees. Contracting employers must now keep a record of the hours worked by each temporary employee for three years.
The Act removes the $10,000 cap on what an Employment Standards Officer can order an employer to pay in unpaid wages, and extends the limitation period for non-payment complaints from six months to two years on a going-forward basis.
Furthermore, the minimum wage is to be adjusted in accordance with an equation based on the Consumer Price Index, to better accord with the cost of living. Currently in Ontario the minimum wage is $11/hour, the highest in Canada (along with Nunavut).
Workplace Health and Safety
Importantly for employers who rely on unpaid internships for some or all of their workforce, the definition of “worker” in the Occupational Health and Safety Act is expanded to encompass unpaid high-school and post-secondary students working for school credit. As a result, such workers are entitled to OHSA protections, including the right to refuse unsafe work, and the protections against workplace violence and harassment.
In an effort to increase awareness of ESA requirements among employers and employees, the Act also introduces mandatory self-audits. Employment Standards Officers can compel an employer to conduct a self-audit of their records and practices to determine whether they are complying with the ESA and its regulations. Employers are also required to provide copies of the most recent Employment Standards informational poster published by the Minister of Labour, in order to ensure employees are informed of their rights and obligations.
The Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals Act will be broadened to apply to every foreign national who is employed in Ontario or looking for work in Ontario pursuant to an immigration or foreign temporary employee program; the employers of foreign nationals in Ontario; recruiters of foreign nationals, and those who act on behalf of recruiters or employers of foreign nationals.
The various provisions and changes under the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, 2014 will come into force at intervals ranging from 3 months to 2 years from the date of Royal Assent, allowing employers to make the necessary changes to their practices before then.