Learning Curve: Business owners unite!

by Tracy Clayson
Tracy Clayson is managing partner, business development of Mississauga, Ontario-based In Transit Personnel.
Tracy Clayson is managing partner, business development of Mississauga, Ontario-based In Transit Personnel.

As a woman with aboriginal ancestry and the product of a working-class broken home, you could say I easily fell into the category of disadvantaged before I even entered the workforce.

However, after wandering aimlessly in my late teens and early twenties, I finally went back to school and completed my Masters Degree in Social Work. I was certain I wanted to help others and facilitate change for those less privileged.

Little did I know that my firm would one day be at risk of having the government assess our business as a violator of workers’ rights—simply because we provide temporary and contract staff.

In the last 15 years there has been an increase in the flow of audits, inspections, assessments and orders for many members of the staffing industry. Some contingent workforce providers are being seen as brokers of unfair working conditions and criticized for not providing “meaningful employment.”

The labour-union-initiated Workers Action Center (WAC) is behind the efforts to discredit and demonize a legitimate working model for companies who require flexible staffing, consistent with changeable work volumes. Being an employer is a risky business at the best of times. Now it’s more so, as many companies fear being exposed or punished for cases of wrongful dismissal, or non-compliance with the Employment Standards Act.

The general public—armed with reports of unequal pay, unsafe work conditions, unfair treatment, inequality and lack of opportunity—now rallies on social media to tackle any organization accused of violating basic human rights. But they may not have all the facts.

If you are an employer, you know that government intervention has created an increasing demand for accountability, specific training and awareness of dignity and respect standards: a full complement of policies and procedures on workplace safety.

Government has also made the common rule of respecting others into a legal battleground. Once a workplace situation has occurred and a conflict exists without remedial action, it opens the door to government intervention heavily slanted to workers’ rights.

All levels of government have put the onus on organizations to police their members to act in ways that protect and prepare individuals and groups against discrimination. The Ministry of Labour and agencies such as the Human Rights Commission are conducting full audits, assessments and investigations and issuing orders to ensure the necessary Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) compliance exists.

The rules are not just in place for large organizations. Once you employ more than six workers you are required to have a joint health and safety committee with a supervisor awareness program that includes training. You must keep records and provide proof that supervisors have taken competency training.

Any disciplinary action can be challenged, and even when the employer has properly documented an employee’s behaviour and has a record of progressive disciplinary actions, the employer is not always protected when an employee decides to report a violation of his/her rights.

In the last decade, many steps have been taken to augment the Employment Standards Act (ESA, c2000). These have forced employers to invest heavily in workplace procedure guideline development, information awareness, audit preparation, incident prevention, workplace injury avoidance and respect and dignity training.

They are worthy steps. But some of the challenges they put in the way of companies, as well as the increase in exposure and liability risks, have probably done more to prevent job growth for full time workers in traditional business environments than any other factor.

As a direct result, companies are increasing the use of temp agencies to avoid potential damages and legal turmoil for all types of hiring.

And now that temp agencies are the subject of more evaluation and scrutiny, many firms are seeing regular audits from the Workers Compensation Board, Ministry of Labour, the Human Rights Commission and other federal and provincial government agencies.

Many people work through agencies, gaining the full benefit of competitive pay and stable employment—and the flexibility to adjust shifts and schedules—as they transition to permanent positions. The only way to attract top employees is to find them the best opportunities. Going into our third decade, we’ve recruited many strong performers, providing gainful employment and enabling legitimate, professional careers.

Temporary workers have rights and must be kept just as safe as all other employees. That’s non-negotiable.

But holding employers up to an unrealistic standard, and tying their hands together with regulatory red tape, is not necessarily the way to ensure a healthy happy work force. My firm, for one, can’t help other people if it can’t help itself.