‘Scumbag’ Ontario employers to be slapped with hefty new fines for withholding workers’ passports, vows labour minister

Good, but the proof will lie with enforcement or lack thereof. The decline in inspections over the last five years is not an encouraging sign:

Ontario employers who withhold vulnerable foreign workers’ passports will face stiff penalties under proposed new labour laws that aim to introduce the highest maximum fines in the country.

If passed, the legislation to be introduced Monday would result in penalties of $100,000 to $200,000 for each passport withheld from a worker — a significant leap from the current fines, which range from just $250 to $1000.

“It’s totally disgusting that any human being would ever be treated the way we see sometimes,” Labour Minister Monte McNaughton told the Star. “Which is why I’ve made this a top priority for myself and for our ministry.”

The proposed reforms would mean if employers are convicted of retaining documents for multiple workers, they could face cumulative fines ranging into the millions.

Withholding foreign nationals’ travel documents is already illegal under provincial employment laws, but heftier fines are “one piece of the puzzle” in a ministry crackdown on labour trafficking, McNaughton said.

Withholding workers’ travel documents is illegal — and widespread, advocates say

The new legislation comes in the wake of several recent labour exploitation cases that have resulted in criminal prosecutions. Earlier this month, York Regional Police announced it had identified 64 Mexican nationals who had been forced to live and work in “deplorable” conditions. Police have laid charges against the workers’ alleged abusers under human trafficking laws.

In that example, the labour ministry’s new penalty framework would also allow inspectors to slap recruiters with fines of up to $6.4 million for withholding passports, said McNaughton.

While retaining workers’ travel documents is coercive and illegal, advocates have long said the practice is widespread — and called for more proactive inspections to prevent violations of the Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals Act (EPFNA).

“The profound weakness of the legislation is that it depends upon individual workers to bring forward complaints,” notes a 2016 report authored by lawyer and migrant labour expert Fay Faraday.

Last year, the ministry investigated 189 claims under EPFNA, uncovered 25 violations and identified more than $100,000 of unpaid entitlements owed to workers.

Inspections down dramatically since 2017

Ministry of Labour data shows the number of inspections conducted to identifyoverall workplace violations such as wage theft has dropped significantly in recent years, from 3,500 in 2017 to 215 last year.

The number of prosecutions for employment standards violations also dropped to 34 from 233 over the same time period.

In a statement, the ministry said its employment standards officers have supported the government’s pandemic response over the past two years, including “providing essential businesses with compliance assistance” and enforcing lockdown regulations.

“While the number of inspections the ministry has been able to complete has been impacted by the pandemic, we have continued to investigate every claim and review every complaint reported to us.”

Labour minister’s focus is on cracking down on ‘scumbags’

McNaughton said the proposed new fines will complement the ministry’s new anti-trafficking unit that has so far initiated 45 investigations and recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars for over 3,500 workers.

“I know the changes will only work if you catch these scumbags,” he said. “My focus is cracking down on the bad guys who are breaking the law, and my goal is to fine them as much as possible.”

In addition to facing so-called administrative penalties for withholding travel documents, individuals who are prosecuted in court under the proposed labour reforms could face additional penalties of up to $500,000 or a year of jail — up from the current maximum fine of $50,000. Corporations would be liable for penalties of up to $1 million.

With labour exploitation attracting growing attention, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change has said it believes the labour ministry is the right body to lead enforcement activities. The advocacy group has raised concern about the involvement of police and border authorities, particularly where vulnerable workers are at risk of deportation.

Proposed legislation includes higher fines, expanded worker protections

Other changes to be introduced Monday include higher fines for corporations convicted of health and safety violations, raising fines to $2 million from $1.5 million.

The move follows an increase in maximum fines for individuals who break workplace safety laws, brought in last year.

The proposed new legislation will also contain a number of other initiatives recently announced by the ministry, including expanded cancer coverage for firefighters at the workers’ compensation board and protections for remote workers during mass terminations.

Source: ‘Scumbag’ Ontario employers to be slapped with hefty new fines for withholding workers’ passports, vows labour minister

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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