Ontario’s Ministry of Labour will “modernize and streamline” its enforcement efforts by helping employers to “educate themselves” on their workplace obligations, according to Thursday’s provincial budget. The move to encourage employers to be more “self-reliant” coincides with an $11 million cut to the ministry’s budget from $317 million in 2017/18 to $306.1 million this year. The ministry will develop “automated digital tools” to help employers educate themselves on employment standards so the ministry can “focus on high-risk, high-impact investigations,” the budget says. “Ontario is once again open for business and open for jobs,” Finance Minister Vic Fedeli said Thursday.

In March, the Ministry of Labour announced a new online self-audit tool for employers to replace “cumbersome paper audits” and give “job creators a simple, easy and convenient way to demonstrate they follow the rules.” Labour advocates have consistently argued that self-regulation does not work and that proactive workplace inspections are the best way to ensure compliance with the law. Deena Ladd of the Toronto-based Workers’ Action Centre said that without robust enforcement, workers’ rights are “just words on paper.” “This is basically saying to employers, we’re not going to monitor you. Employers who routinely violate the law will see this as open season.” A two-year review of Ontario’s workplace standards, conducted by two independent experts beginning in 2015, described the province’s enforcement efforts as inadequate in ensuring workers’ rights were protected on the job.

Ontario employers to ‘educate themselves’ on workplace obligations to cut costs Fedeli says Ontario is ‘a place to grow’ spending with Tories’ record $163.4B budget Social programs face $1 billion spending cut in Ontario budget Proactive inspections, which are a more costly enforcement mechanism, have not historically been the main vehicle for the Ministry of Labour’s compliance efforts. But statistics show they are almost 100 per cent effective at recovering workers’ stolen wages and entitlements. In response to concerns raised about weak enforcement, the previous Liberal government pledged to double the ministry’s complement of employment standards enforcement officers in order to ramp up the number of proactive inspections in the province. Only a fraction of the new officers were hired before the Ford government was elected and instituted a hiring freeze.

As first reported by the Star, the Ministry of Labour instructed staff in October not to initiate any new proactive inspections aimed at preventing wage theft and other employment standards violations. Fedeli said the government had created a “pro-jobs environment” by cancelling a minimum-wage increase to $15 and reversing worker protections implemented by the previous government. Separately, the government will undertake a review of the workers’ compensation system with a report to Labour Minister Laurie Scott expected by the end of the year.

The operational review of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board is aimed at ensuring “cost efficiency and effectiveness” and the sustainability of the board’s funds. The review will compare how the WSIB functions to “competing jurisdictions and private sector insurers.” Privatizing the system is not part of the review’s mandate, but the independent advisers charged with leading it could make that recommendation. One adviser will be Sean Speer of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and more advisers could be announced later.

The WSIB recently eliminated its unfunded liability, which was the gap between the amount of money in its fund and the value of all benefits owed to injured workers. As of January 2019, employers’ insurance premiums — which fund workers’ benefits — were slashed by 30 per cent. Injured worker advocates have argued that the drive to reduce the board’s unfunded liability, which began in 2010, resulted in significant cuts to injured workers’ benefits and poorer service for accident victims. “We know how private insurance deals with disability and how private insurance companies look to deny (claims),” said Aidan MacDonald of the Toronto-based Injured Workers Clinic. “Compensation and insurance are two different things. A compensation system is designed to support people and an insurance system is not.” The workers’ compensation system is a no-fault model where injured workers give up their right to sue their employer in exchange for fair access to benefits.

Originally posted from Toronto Star by Sara Mojtehedzadeh on April 11, 2019