To root out ‘scumbags,’ Ontario to license recruitment agencies

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Responding to the exploitation of vulnerable foreign workers by some job recruiters, the Ontario government on Wednesday announced it would begin licensing temporary aid agencies.

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The change comes with tough penalties for violators and a public registry to alert employers of those operators with any history of violations.

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Most agencies and recruiters are legitimate, said Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s minister of labour, immigration, training and skills development.

But while the sector might be providing a “vital” service, “for too long they have operated in a gray zone that allows criminals to prey on vulnerable workers,” he said.

Inspections by provincial officers “have shown that multiple temporary aid agencies in Ontario are illegally paying people below the minimum wage and denying other basic employment rights to gain an unfair competitive advantage over law-abiding agencies by undercutting rates,” the ministry said in a statement .

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“If scumbags are out there treating workers inhumanely … we don’t want them in our province,” McNaughton told the Windsor Star, adding Ontario will also institute the stiffest penalties in Canada for violations.

Monte McNaughton talks with workers
Ontario Minister of Labor, Immigration, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton speaks with employees Wednesday, July 5, 2023, in a greenhouse at Jack’s Organics in Amherstburg, where he announced a new licensing program to better protect workers. Photo by Julie Kotsis /Windsor Star

Part of the problem was exposed locally during the height of the COVID pandemic when some agricultural workers were brought in from the Caribbean nations and elsewhere came forward with horror tales of being exploited and mistreated by some job recruiters and employers to whom they were contracted.

McNaughton said the changes, which came into effect Jan. 1, “will ensure law-abiding businesses can have confidence in the THAs (temporary aid agencies) and recruiters they work with, and that those who abuse workers face the harshest fines in Canada and are banned from operating in our province.”

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Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald, one of the local voices who spoke out against some of those illegal practices several years ago, said it’s an important step that should have a positive impact.

“I think it’s a great idea. It always boils down to keeping workers safe,” said MacDonald, who is also the warden of Essex County.

According to the Ministry of Labor, businesses and jobseekers in Ontario are often unaware when the agency or recruiter they’re working with is not meeting employment standards obligations, or that they might have a history of violations.

McNaughton said that changes in the new year. Under the new licensing regime, temporary aid agencies and recruiters will need to obtain annual licenses ($750) and provide a $25,000 letter of credit that can be used to repay any wages owed to employees who are underpaid.

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Repeat offenders could face fines of up to $50,000, and employers will be able to access a ministry online database to check whether the agency or recruiter they’re working with has any history of violations.

According to the labor ministry, inspections in 2020-21 found that $4.2 million was owed to more than 10,000 workers at Ontario farms, food processing facilities, storage and warehousing operations, and in retirement homes.

McNaughton said sectors across the economy were consulted and expressed approval for the new licensing program.

He said this latest initiative is part of the Ford government’s “working for workers” program to protect vulnerable workers, including the recent announcement of increasing the fines that can be levied against employers who hold on to their employees’ passports. McNaughton also pointed to a beefed-up investigative unit within his ministry.

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MacDonald would like to see more done on improving living conditions for some of the temporary foreign workers, thousands of whom are brought in annually for the important Essex County greenhouse and agricultural sector.

She said when Leamington’s bylaw or fire officials responded to housing complaints involving temporary foreign workers and find people living in “deplorable conditions” the occupants are often undocumented workers connected to shady job brokers.

Earlier this year, MacDonald said his office was contacted by a local church helping feed workers who were looking for food. Those individuals, he said, were not connected to official foreign worker programs or had expired visas and were getting employment through brokers.

“Every move we can make is better for our community, for businesses, and for the workers themselves,” she said.

McNaughton visited a local greenhouse tomato-growing operation, Jack’s Organics in Amherstburg, on Wednesday to make the official announcement.

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