A Decent Work Agenda for Toronto

by Deena Ladd and Mary Gellatly

Like many cities in Canada, Toronto has invested time, energy, and money into developing a poverty reduction strategy. Yet the City still lacks a central component of such an initiative: a committed decent work agenda.

Studies by the Workers’ Action Centre and by Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) have shown that more than half of all GTA workers are in temporary, contract, or part-time employment. The Wellesley Institute has also shown that increasing numbers of municipal jobs are being contracted out to cut costs, and full-time municipal workers are losing their jobs, or seeing their full-time work converted into part-time positions with lower wages, fewer hours, and decreased benefits.

The City of Toronto can and should take the lead in creating a culture of decent work for all workers, whether they perform part-time, full-time, or casual work. This will take commitment, diligence, and creativity.

While some legislative tools for enforcing decent work standards – such as the minimum wage – are decided by the Province, many effective levers operate at the municipal level. Three in particular could transform the quality of jobs for all municipal workers: (1) conscientious procurement; (2) enforcement of the City’s existing Fair Wage Policy; and (3) a Job Quality Index.

Toronto already has a social procurement policy, intended to diversify the City’s supply chain to provide economic opportunities and workforce development for “equity-seeking communities.” While this is a good first step, there are more opportunities to embed decent work principles at multiple levels.

The City could, for example, stipulate that contractors hire employees directly instead of relying on subcontractors or temp agencies. It could award contracts only to companies with a record of good employment, or with stated principles for hiring local labour. The City could require real estate developers to enter into community benefits agreements to ensure that companies hire directly from local communities. This requirement would put money back into the pockets of workers, which can in turn help local economies and revitalize Toronto’s neighbourhoods.

Another avenue for change lies in the municipal government’s role as an anchor institution, as well as its relationships with other anchor institutions in the city. Most public-sector or non-profit organizations are anchor institutions – hospitals, universities, foundations, and museums. New initiatives focused on building “anchor missions” are seeing these institutions shift their focus to creating jobs, offering training opportunities, and incubating the development of small businesses.

Cleveland and Miami have garnered attention for using the economic power of anchor institutions to benefit low-income communities. Toronto could further its commitment to social procurement as an anchor institution, or work with large institutions like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to develop agreements that prioritize the creation of good jobs in local communities.

The City also has an effective but underused tool to protect workers on City contracts: a robust Fair Wage Policy.

This policy, instituted in 1893, sets the floor for wages and benefits for workers on all City contracts. It requires that all contractors and subcontractors comply with the fair wage schedule set by the City. All contractors must submit information on wages, hours of work, hourly rates, and benefits, as well as the wages and benefits provided by subcontractors.

The policy is rarely enforced, however. In 2015, a Toronto Star investigation highlighted the story of Angel Reyes, who had been employed as a temporary worker at a recycling plant for five years. During his time working for Canada Fibers (the company holding the municipal contract for blue-bin recycling), Angel was paid the $11 minimum wage, even though the company’s contract with the City stipulated that all workers would receive an hourly wage of $12.34, with pay increases tied to inflation. Throughout his time as a temp worker, Angel received lower wages than his permanent counterparts for the same work. He received no benefits.

The Toronto Star series prompted the City’s Fair Wage Office to launch a two-year-long investigation into Canada Fibers, which found that the company owed $1.33 million to 1,600 employees. It took more than two years for those workers to receive fair compensation. Angel lost his job for speaking out, but was offered a permanent job by a sympathetic Star reader.

The Fair Wage Policy is a comprehensive and powerful tool, but it is not used effectively. As things stand, the City expects workers to file a complaint in the event of a Fair Wage Policy violation. This places the onus on aggrieved workers, most of whom are reluctant to take such action for fear of reprisals or loss of livelihood. Toronto needs a proactive Fair Wage Office, with a mandate to conduct regular inquiries into City contractors.

Finally, the development of a decent work agenda requires an overarching vision. In 2014, City Hall promised a Job Quality Index that would serve as a blueprint, setting standards for decent work at the municipal level. That promise remains to be fulfilled.

Besides providing a checklist of work conditions to be met, an effective Index would measure the impact of jobs and job structures on workers and communities, asking questions about the City’s role in creating decent jobs. What is the rate of growth for full-time versus part-time employment? How do the jobs being created affect different demographics? What percentage of contracts is awarded to local suppliers, and how can this rate be improved?

Toronto cannot speak of solutions to poverty on the one hand while contributing to the erosion of decent work on the other. It cannot continue to keep people in low-paying jobs, with no benefits, job security, or quality of life.

The Province’s Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, 2017, substantially raised standards, including a $15 minimum wage, paid sick days, equal pay for equal work, and fairer scheduling rules. With this foundation in place, the City is well positioned to take the lead in creating and enforcing decent work standards. Through conscientious procurement practices, proactive enforcement of its Fair Wage Policy, and regular monitoring, Toronto can create better jobs for all its residents.

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Image of Deena Ladd

Deena Ladd has been immersed for 26 years in community and labour organizing, education, and training, as well as building organizations to support immigrant and racialized women and low-wage workers in Ontario. She is a co-founder and coordinator of the Workers’ Action Centre (WAC), a worker-based organization committed to improving the lives and working conditions of people in low-wage and unstable employment.

Image of Mary Gellatly

Mary Gellatly is a Community Legal Worker in the Workers’ Rights Division at Parkdale Community Legal Services. She has extensive experience in workers’ rights, labour policy and research, and community organizing. Mary is one of the co-founders of the Workers’ Action Centre.

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