Published March 20, 2023

Ontario to boost penalties for employers who withhold workers' passports

Currently, labour inspectors can levy penalties of $250 for each passport or work permit that is withheld

A new omnibus labour bill introduced Monday in Ontario would slap steep fines on employers who withhold migrant workers’ passports, extend mass layoff protections to remote workers and require more washrooms on construction sites.

The legislation is dubbed the Working for Workers Act, the third of its kind amid a push in recent years from Labour Minister Monte McNaughton to advance those issues. It does not, however, address paid sick days, which the Opposition has said should be a priority.

A program introduced during the pandemic to provide three paid sick days is set to expire next week. 

"We’ll have more to say about that," McNaughton said Monday. 

McNaughton’s new legislation includes expanding the reasons military reservists can take job leave, extending mass layoff provisions to remote workers, and doubling the number of washrooms on construction sites – with some for women only – as well as protections for workers who are foreign nationals.

"My message to those scumbags out there abusing migrant workers is this: you can run but you can’t hide," McNaughton said at a press conference. "We will find you, fine you and put you behind bars." 

Currently, labour inspectors can levy penalties of $250 for each passport or work permit that is withheld, but with the proposed changes, that would rise to $100,000. Subsequent instances could see that penalty rise to $200,000.

As well, if an individual employer is ultimately convicted by the courts of such an offence, they would also be subject to a fine of up to $500,000, up to 12 months in jail or both, while corporations could be fined up to $1 million.

The current fines are $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for corporations.

McNaughton said the stronger fines build on work being done by an anti−labour trafficking division within the ministry that launched 18 months ago to crack down on exploitation. It happens far too often, he said, pointing to a recent bust by York Regional Police. 

Police said 64 Mexican nationals were lured to Canada with the promise of good jobs but were made to live and work in deplorable conditions. Five members of an alleged criminal human trafficking organization are now facing multiple charges. Police are looking for two others.

The men and women who were trafficked worked at farms, factories and warehouses and were taken from their living quarters – where the workers described dozens of people slept on mattresses on the floor amid bug infestations – to their workplaces on private buses, police said.

McNaughton said if the legislation passes, those perpetrators could face at least $6.4 million in fines.

Ontario is also proposing to boost the fine for corporations convicted of any offence under the Occupational Health and Safety Act from $1.5 million to $2 million.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the province’s temporary sick day program should be extended and expanded.

"We’re getting down to the wire now," she said Monday. "Of course, we’ve also been pushing very hard for 10 paid sick days – permanent paid sick days – for all Ontarians."

Employers are reimbursed by the government for the paid leave days. Eligible workers can receive up to $200 per day for up to three days for pandemic−related absences like testing, vaccination, isolation or caring for relatives who are ill with COVID−19. 

McNaughton said the program, launched in 2021, has served more than 500,000 workers.

Monday’s legislation would also require at least one women’s only toilet on large construction sites, double the number of toilets required on job sites, require adequate lighting, require hand sanitizer where there is no running water, and require single toilets to be completely enclosed. 

As well, it would update employment laws to ensure employees who work solely from home are eligible for the same enhanced notice as "in−office" and other employees in mass termination situations.

The changes would give remote workers the same eight−week minimum notice of termination or pay−in−lieu as other employees.

Another section of the bill would protect the civilian jobs of military reservists, even if they just started a new job or need time off to recover from mental or physical injuries.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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