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What is Wage Theft?
Wage theft occurs when an employer fails to fully compensate an employee for an agreed-upon wage or salary according to a contract, collective agreement, or existing labour laws.
Wage theft can manifest itself in many forms, with the following among its most common examples:
- Employers paying their employees less than the legal minimum wage;
- Employers not paying for the proper amount for allocated time, including overtime hours;
- Employers issuing paycheques that bounce or require excessively long delays
- Employers making unfair or unnecessary deductions when issuing paycheques;
- Employers paying on a per-day basis, or alternately upon completion of the assigned task;
- Employers taking or paying wages through tips and gratuities;
- Employers not paying termination or severance pay in lieu of notice;
- Employers deliberately misrepresenting employees as independent contractors;
- Employers failing to pay a worker at all
Each of these scenarios exemplify clear violations of the Ontario Employment Standards Act, and cover most forms of wages including minimums, termination, severance, holiday, and overtime. Every province has its own employment standards legislation that clearly define the legal responsibilities of both employers and employees concerning wages
What is Wage Recovery?
When any of these examples of wage theft occur, the recovery work can be performed in different ways. Concerning Ontario in specific, the Ministry of Labour, Training, and Skills Development (MoL) is the provincial government body responsible for investigating claims and prosecuting violations, when the workers’ industry falls under federal jurisdiction, or when there is no collective agreement with a union in the workplace. A claim form can be filed with the MoL and an officer assigned to the case that will ask both employer and employee to provide more contextual information prior to coordinating a meeting or arranging a settlement between the both parties concerned. This process can take from 3-8 months before the Ministry reaches a decision, of which the losing party may subsequently request an appeal if desired
Since the 2014, the MoL has investigated over 15,000 claims on an annual basis and initiated anywhere between 2300-3600 claims on its own, focusing primarily on high-risk sectors and employers having repeatedly committed violations. Unfortunately, these investigations resulted in a successful prosecution rate of under 5% against employers violating a claim, with total annual numbers amounting as low as 86 and as high as 955 per year.
Worse still, these rates declined further in 2019, when a total of 22, 434 were investigated; only 36 tickets were issued against employers, and 50 employers faced penalties such as fines or imprisonment.
Throughout this six-year span, the Government of Ontario simultaneously implemented and rescinded legislation to increase the amount of employment standards officers working for the MoL. In 2016, a report commissioned by the MoL found extensive problems concerning enforcement of labour laws, and between 2017-2018 had increased its staff up to 271 officers from previous 198 before budget cuts were imposed in 2019.
Despite the MoL’s budget restraints to fulfill its duty to investigate and recover wages for working people, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) considers the MoL to be an unreliable enforcer of existing labour legislation, and likewise does not advocate for the interests of the working class as a whole. We recognize that the priority of the government is to achieve labour peace, which is the cooperation between employers and employees to follow legal standards to continue the expansion of for-profit economic production.
Even within these meager parameters, the MoL continues to fail at providing the most fundamental protective measures for thousands of workers who have filed legal violations against their employers.
The IWW believes that the protection of workers’ rights is best achieved by the workers themselves, through solidarity unionism. The latter compels workers of all varying industries to band together under common interests, and likewise empowers them to confront their employers via collective direct action and increase their likelihood of success.
The Ottawa-Outaouais IWW’s History of Successes against Instances of Wage Theft
Since 2007, this local branch of the IWW has been handling wage theft cases with a 100% success rate on a near-annual basis; these cases vary in duration from hour-long disputes to multiple weeks to even an entire year in length, with a diverse range of tactics utilized to apply pressure to employers to compensate their former employees. The responses from employers included engaging in acts of hostility towards the union members, denying that the employees had worked at these establishments in spite of evidence to the contrary, and refusing to cooperate with a labour union in the dispute.
One first such case was that of a short-lived nightclub located on Rideau Street in the city’s downtown. An IWW member who worked over 50 hours at the nightclub was not paid the $500 they were owed by the employer. After initiating a picket, the owner berated union members while potential patrons turned away from the establishment. Before the end of the night, the owner begrudgingly handed $250 in cash from the till over to the former employee, along with a written agreement to pay the remainder within the week.
In 2008, another well-publicized picket was launched at a tavern located on trendy Elgin Street. In this case, our union member had been employed as a dishwasher in 2006, was fired, and was denied his paycheque after one month of work. It took two years for the company to be found liable which awarded the worker over $2,500 in damages, court costs, and associated interest fees. However, the company refused to pay for four months, in which the IWW had been approached to take direct action. Negotiations failed after the owner denied the union member had ever worked there, that they weren’t legally responsible for years of non-payment, and that the dispute was resolved with an apology and dismissal of the manager who who was held responsible for the non-payment. Following these negotiations, community and union members launched a 45-minute picket; the former employee was then handed a cheque for the full amount they were owed.
Similarly in 2013, a union member working at in a restaurant in the city’s tourist-heavy Byward Market location for two years was unfairly terminated for raising concerns over health and safety issues in the workplace. After meeting with the employer with the IWW in support, picket actions were taken to recover owed termination pay, as well as compensation for gratuities that would have been earned during the termination period. The pickets were well attended and publicized on CBC News, in which the establishment’s co-owner lied about offering payment to our union member prior to picket actions. Eventually, the union and the terminated employee were offered a sum of of $265.38—equivalent to two weeks pay—in lieu of notice with the exception of gratuities.
Despite these actions being very short, the longest case the IWW had ever encountered so far was when two union members had quit their jobs at a hair salon on Bank Street following non-payment of wages for several weeks’ worth of work. Immediately after leaving the business in November 2011, the two formed a small picket at the front door. Police promptly showed up to defend the business, issued fraudulent tickets to the employees, and intimidated the workers and a passerby who came to offer support..
The IWW was eventually approached for help, and subsequently engaged in larger picket actions against the salon throughout the winter of 2011. At every attempt to picket the hair salon, Ottawa police officers threatened the picketers with physical harm or false arrests in defense of private property interests, but the pickets continued to defy the police attempts of intimidation and threats of violence.
After applying to the MoL, an order for payment was issued to the employer, which was repeatedly delayed and appealed until finally a cheque was issued in February 2013, fifteen months after the workers had left their jobs.
While our wage recovery work at service establishments has proven successful by directly affecting the employer at their source of income, we have dealt with businesses that work digitally or remotely as well. In 2014, the union took on a case at a towing company located in both the outskirts of Ottawa as well as the Montreal area. Fellow Worker Starr of the local IWW discusses how we recovered the unpaid wages from in an audio interview here: https://cloud.ottawaiww.org/s/fptHLTFrsbgH3et (Updated: July 11, 2021)
What Can We do For You in Support Against Wage Theft?
While we support IWW members who have experienced wage theft cases, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we will be opening up our support to non-members of our community. Our union recognizes that during these times, those precariously employed and who have constantly faced wage theft are higher risk and impact of these same violations during a global public health crisis. With increasing government regulations and a decrease in a customer base, employers will look for options to cut corners, whether it is with health and safety practices and proper compensation.
Members of the IWW are willing to hear and investigate claims of wage theft against employers in the Ottawa-Outaouais region. Should these claims be found to have merit, we will demand that the employer ‘make whole’ the injury to the worker, and use a series of escalating tactics in order to leverage our demand and to resolve the matter with the worker’s best interests always taking place as highest priority.
The IWW will always take the worker’s side, irrespective of the severity of the damage inflicted upon them. As our motto clearly implies without compromise:
An Injury to One is an Injury to All.
Contact the Ottawa-Outaouais Industrial Workers of the World
By email: info (at) ottawaiww.org
By phone: (613) 518-7968