Montreal It was exciting to meet with the organizers and volunteers of the Immigrant Workers Center in Montreal and hear about their developing campaigns to finally bring aggressive statutory and regulatory reform to temporary employment agency scams and the companies that use them.
The IWC has identified a number of gaps in the Quebec provincial labor code which effectively have created a sophisticated dodge for workers, particularly immigrant workers often desperate for work and trying to navigate new and confusing systems. Wage theft and escaping liabilities for injuries and negligence are the two most common complaints, and when the workers or their advocates, like IWC, go after the agency we heard that they are constantly confronted with a shell game in which the agency denies they are the employer and points to the company, and when the company is confronted, they point back to the agency, while both combine to do everything they can to delay the process, sit on their hands, and hope it all goes away. The IWC legislative proposition, which is garnering strong support throughout the province from labor and other groups, would place the liability clearly on the backs of the agency.
One problem we brainstormed about at some length was whether the agencies would then become little more than folding chairs, disappearing immediately upon the assessment of the liability for the workers, going out of business as they too frequently do anyway, and resurfacing with the same scam another day in another way. In the United States where in some states we have won legislation to regulate employment agencies (ACORN won this in Arkansas in 1972-73 for example), we have also spent a lot of time trying to establish co-employer status, essentially proving that both the contractor and the company, business and the agency are both responsible for labor practices. The most effective, though dauntingly difficult route has been through the National Labor Relations Board. The victory won by SEIU first in Pittsburgh in the 1980’s proving that a building property owner and its cleaning contractor were co-employers of the janitors created the underpinning of much of the strategy and success of the Justice for Janitors organizing campaign which targeted property owners in major cities for organization.
Local 100 had a similar experience in trying to establish co-employer status between sanitation contractors and the temporary, casual employers that provided the laborers on the back, business end of the garbage trucks. Though we did not win in the initial labor board hearing, the de factor reality of the situation propelled us in bargaining for decades of path breaking contracts. In these situations we were directly unionizing temporary, casual workers under the long settled standard qualifying such workers under jurisdiction if they averaged 16 hours per week over a three month period. We found ourselves encouraging our friends at the IWC to move directly with the workers in this way to fuel support for their legislative effort simultaneously.
Common sense has to eventually win out here, and IWC is right to push for clarity in Quebec. Everyone knows that the owner/contractor is calling the shots and the agency, subcontractors, and certainly workers are just dancing to the tune, but the loopholes in too many of these “business-friendly” laws are allowing both to walk away when the music stops, leaving the worker holding the bag without the wages or relief they need.