York researchers publish new book on employment standards enforcement

The Closing the Enforcement Gap research team, headed by York Politics Professor Leah F. Vosko and involving York Sociology Associate Professor Mark P. Thomas and Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Eric M. Tucker, has published a new co-authored book from the University of Toronto Press.

Closing the Enforcement Gap. Book cover image provided by the authors

Closing the Enforcement Gap: Improving Protections for Workers in Precarious Jobs is the first book to offer a comprehensive analysis of the enforcement of employment standards in Canada – with a focus on Ontario – in comparative context. The nature of employment is changing: low wage jobs are increasingly common, fewer workers are represented by unions, and workplaces are being transformed through the growth of contracting-out, franchising and extended supply chains.

Precarious employment is pervasive, and enforcement strategies have not kept up. In particular, the upheaval caused by COVID-19 has brought into stark relief the precarious nature of work in the 21st century. According to Deena Ladd from the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto, a central community partner on the SSHRC-funded Partnership Grant from which the book originated, workers such as cleaners, now doing work deemed essential to public safety, have long been considered “low-skilled,” subject to low wages, and, as Ladd specifically points out, hired as “independent contractors” rather than employees, meaning they are not covered under the Employment Standards Act (ESA).

A similar situation has surfaced recently in the case of pizza delivery drivers; as reported in the Toronto Star in early April, delivery drivers have launched a class action law suit against a major pizza chain, arguing they were incorrectly classified as independent contractors and thus denied basic workplace protections under the ESA. Delivery is also now an essential service in the world of COVID-19. Furthermore, as labour market insecurity is shaped by the social relations of gender, race, (dis)ability, and citizenship and migration status, a large portion of the precariously employed are women, people of colour, and migrants.

Closing the Enforcement Gap explores issues like employee misclassification in extraordinary depth. Based on an extensive analysis of administrative data provided to the team by Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, as well as interviews with workers and enforcement staff and archival and policy research, the book situates employment standards within the context of the rise of precarious employment, outlines the system for making an employment standards claim (and why workers would be hesitant to make one), mechanisms (often ineffective) of wage recovery, the reactive (not proactive) approach to inspections, the (limited) use of deterrence measures, and options for the inclusion of non-state actors in enforcement.

Chapters on Britain, Australia, Québec, and the United States situate Ontario and Canada more broadly within an international context, identifying best practices that could be used in the province. A key contribution of the book, as Professor Sara Charlesworth from RMIT states, “is the attention paid to structural barriers…in particular, feminization, racialization, and migration and citizenship status. The analysis draws attention to the ways in which these barriers intersect and exemplifies the benefits of using critical and feminist political economy as conceptual frames.” Consequently, Gerhard Bosch from Universität Duisburg-Essen calls the book “a must read” and Janice Fine from Rutgers University states it is “an incredibly important book…exhaustively researched and nuanced.”

As we begin to collectively imagine a post COVID-19 Canada, the book offers a number of recommendations for improving labour protections, ensuring that workers no longer fall through the enforcement gap. Recommendations include:

  • allowing third parties to file complaints on behalf of workers,
  • eliminating performance measures based on quantity for Employment Standards Officers,
  • expanding liability for payment of monies to employees to address fissuring,
  • moving towards proactive inspections with limited advanced notice, and
  • actively using the deterrence tools provided for in the ESA and using them in more strategic ways.

Measures such as these would provide stronger labour protections for the increasing numbers of workers, particularly those already vulnerable, engaged in precarious jobs.

The book is co-authored by Leah F. Vosko, Guliz Akkaymak, Rebecca Casey, Shelley Condratto, John Grundy, Alan Hall, Alice Hoe, Kiran Mirchandani, Andrea M. Noack, Urvashi Soni-Sinha, Mercedes Steedman, Mark P. Thomas, and Eric M. Tucker. International/Québec contributors are Nick Clark, Dalia Gesualdi-Fecteau, Tess Hardy, John Howe, Guylaine Vallée, and David Weil. The research was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Partnership Grant. The book is available from University of Toronto Press.