Temporary Employment Agency Workers are Organizing in Montreal

Conchita Poonin and her co-workers strike for a $15 starting salary. Thousands of Quebec nursing home workers have walked off the job in their first-ever series of coordinated strikes. Photo: Immigrant Workers Centre

Montreal   While in Quebec with the ACORN Canada head organizers, several of us stopped by to meet with our friends and partners at the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal. We talked to Eric Shragge, president of the board, and longtime activist and academic as well as other long time staffers. In addition to the work and campaigns that they have been pushing consistently during the fifteen years since their founding, we caught up with several exciting and important new initiatives that are central in Center’s current focus and work, especially because it is critical to understand that the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal is not a job training and placement or social service center, so common in the United States and even Canada, but is better understood as an organizing center for immigrant workers.

Most intriguing to me was the activity of the Temporary Agency Workers Association (TAWA). Many of the issues this association is targeting are the common complaints of most workers employed through such placement agencies, but foreign and immigrant workers are obviously even more vulnerable and precarious with fewer resources and protections on these jobs. It also goes without saying that many jobs they find working through the agencies are dangerous and low paying.

All of this resonated deeply with me, remembering that in 1971, as ACORN was expanding our work in Arkansas past housing project tenant issues and welfare rights issues, we started two additional, area-wide rights-based affiliated organizations, the Vietnam Veterans Organizing Committee and the Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee (UWOC). The central issue for the UWOC quickly became their lack of rights and exploitation by temporary employment agencies or buy-a-job shops, as we called them. We ended up winning some legislative reforms guaranteeing rights for temporary workers as well as better guarantees for employers picking up the fees and making some jobs permanent. Nevertheless in the way that labor has been squeezed and union strength has diminished over the last 45 years, the growth of non-contract, unprotected temporary work has ballooned making some companies the largest US private sector employers after Walmart, handling jobs at all skill positions.

In Quebec all fees are paid by the employers, but most of the rest of the issues are the same, except worse, as we learned from the Immigrant Workers’ Center. They had won a campaign recently with a group of workers from Mauritius who had been trapped in bad workplace conditions when immigration laws changed in Canada no longer guaranteeing permanent residence after four years of employment and won their residency despite the regulation.

The TAWA key demands are easy to support. They want a living wage for their work, and have joined the campaign for $15 per hour that has been a signature effort of the Immigrant Worker Center over the last several years. They want to shut down the fly-by-night operators, which are little more than labor contractors involved in bait-and-switch exploitation of workers. Importantly, they want to win some co-employer guarantees between the contracting employer and the agency hiring the workers to prevent the efforts to bypass provincial labor standards.

We need to follow the work of TAWA and the IWC in Montreal. They could break a new path for precarious and informally employed workers that all of us should follow.

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Targeting Employment Agency Scam

Job-Scams_crop380w 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.

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