Ontario’s temp agencies, then and now
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Ontario’s early private employment agents flourished in the late 1800s, connecting workers with casual labour for a fee and recruiting immigrants on the often false promise of jobs in the New World.
Leah Vosko, an employment expert at York University, argues that today’s temp agencies may be partly traced to those early 19th-century businesses, whose history she chronicles in her book Temporary Work.
The provincial government first moved to regulate the sector in 1914, when new laws gave the province the power to issue and revoke agencies’ licenses and to regulate the fees agents could charge workers and companies.
The maximum penalty for breaking the law was $500, equivalent to $10,525 today.
Louis Goldstein, for example, was convicted that year for charging fees to a group of immigrants and placing them in jobs “to which they proved unsuited,” according to the province’s 1916 Commission on Unemployment.
Goldstein was slapped with $80.85 in fines, which today would amount to more than $1,700.
The largest fine issued in the most recent Ministry of Labour inspection blitz, which found violations in 72 per cent of temporary work agencies it inspected in 2012, was $295.
Vosko’s research argues that government regulation of the employment services industry weakened significantly in the latter half of the 20th century, though she notes that the Ontario government has recently introduced a number of measures to try to ramp up protections for temporary agency workers.
In 2009, Bill 139 gave temp workers the right to receive public holiday pay and one weeks’ termination notice. It also made it illegal for agencies to charge direct fees to workers.
In 2014, the Employment Standards Act was updated again to make both temp agencies and their client companies legally responsible for workers’ wages, public holiday pay and overtime pay. The measure was aimed at ensuring receive their minimum rights under the ESA.
Vosko says the new measures “better reflect the changing nature of work.” But as the province reviews its outdated Employment Standards Act, she argues that more can be done to crack down on unfair practices.