Sunday Nov 18

Winning Reforms The Struggle for Justice for Placement Agency Workers in Quebec

At the end of May 2018, just before the Quebec National Assembly rose for the summer break and with parties preparing for an election campaign beginning at the end of August, the ruling Liberal party passed Bill 176 to reform the labor standards act. In Quebec, as across Canada, labor standards for most jobs are under provincial jurisdiction. These standards are usually known as employment standards because they cover non-unionized workers. Some of the changes addressed in this legislation include the reconciliation of work and family life, including expansion of paid sick days. Within the reform, several changes were introduced that will improve the conditions faced by some of the most precarious workers, who are employed through placement agencies. This article will discuss these reforms and the related campaign led by the Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC) in Montreal. The process of organizing will be described and some of the implications of the new legislation, although as of this writing, the administrative regulations associated with the legislation have not been introduced.

The Immigrant Workers Centre and Agency Worker Organizing

Since its founding in 2000, the IWC has played an important role in Montréal aiding hundreds of migrant and immigrant workers each year in their various workplaces and in immigration struggles both individually and collectively. With minimal staff and funding and a host of dedicated volunteers and board members, the IWC acts as a resource and education center that undertakes services, advocacy, and organizing relevant to the needs and interests of immigrant and migrant workers.

The IWC establishes its priorities based on who comes to the center, and the issues they face. In recent years, the center has prioritized two groups. The first is temporary agency workers and the second is temporary foreign workers who are brought in by employers through various government programs. These workers have helped organizers at the center understand the issues they face, including working conditions, the relationship between workers and their employers, and the relative risks of engaging in fighting back. Further, in our analysis, it became clear that many immigrants, particularly those arriving here in the past 10 years, received their first jobs through placement agencies and many never left that relationship. As well, the employers were using temporary foreign workers to fill a wide range of jobs. It is also a sector which is not regulated under the labor standards.

As a means of building worker power and solidarity, the IWC decided to set up two worker-led associations—the Temporary Agency Workers Association (TAWA) and the Temporary Foreign Workers Association (TFWA). Working in different ways, these associations build worker leadership and campaign for justice. For the TAWA, the organizing is local, reaching workers in warehouses, the service sector, and though many through community, religious and cultural organizations. Agency workers face a triangular employment relationship which circumvents standard employment relations between the employer and the worker. Placement agency work creates a non-standard employment relationship between the temporary agency, the worker, and the client enterprise. Technically, the worker is employed by the employment agency, but the temporary agency’s client employer supervises the worker in the temporary workplace. The worker, in effect, has two bosses, both of which can drop the worker or “run out of work” if the employee causes trouble. This triangular relationship allows both employers and temporary agencies to bypass basic labor rights, and it impedes the ability of workers to organize by creating confusion as to who is the real employer under the Quebec Labour code. Many placement agency workers who have come to the IWC work at warehouses for major corporations, food processing plants, hotels, and large-scale farms, and in manufacturing. IWC worker-leaders have been active in campaigns and in providing information on labor rights and health and safety issues, as well as speaking in many settings to explain the situations faced by agency workers.

TAWA has led several campaigns over the past eight years, for example, focusing on the demand for joint responsibility for labour conditions by both employers and agencies, and demands for employers and agencies to provide safety equipment. Small victories were forthcoming such as some employers agreeing to provide compensation for safety boots when workers demanded it.

With reform of the labour code on the horizon, in May 2017 the IWC and TAWA launched a campaign called “Stability and Dignity”. The campaign resulted from the analysis that TAWA members developed in order to synthesize their most important demands with the overall goal of reining in the relatively unregulated practices of placement agencies and the contracted employers. These demands promoted an offensive stance, with a wider vision of limiting the power of placement agencies. The demands were first, that all temporary agency workers be given permanent employment status after three months of continuous service for the same employer; secondly, that temporary placement agency workers be given the same salary as permanent workers for the same work. The demands included that all workers, regardless of their migrant status, have full access to Quebec services and be able to file complaints to the Commission of labor standards, equity and health, and safety. We also demanded that Quebec grant undocumented workers the right to work and that temporary placement agencies, and employers be considered jointly responsible for respecting the labor standards and health and safety of workers.

Bill 176

On March 20, 2018, Bill 176, “An Act to amend the Act respecting labour standards and other legislative provisions mainly to facilitate family-work balance”, was released by the government. The IWC and the TAWA immediately organized a press conference to continue highlighting the problem of agencies and to push government to give priority to this issue. The Bill included some regulations for agencies–some of this content came from a meeting between workers of TAWA and the staff of the Minister of Labour, on June 4, 2017. In this meeting, workers provided specific information about employer operating patterns and the abusive practices faced by immigrant labor, including workers who are undocumented. We continued, through actions and press conferences, to keep the pressure on the government and keep the issue of agency work in the public eye during 2017 until the launch of the Bill.

The new regulations for agencies included providing equal salaries to the employees of the client enterprise; a prohibition against operating a placement agency without holding a license issued by Labour Standards Commission; a prohibition against client companies retaining the services of an agency that does not hold a license, and a requirement that a client company and agency share responsibility for financial obligations to agency workers. Another gain was the right of temporary and casual workers to refuse to work when there was no notice from the employer about the work schedule. On May 14 the TAWA, the IWC and the Coalition Against Precarious Work submitted a brief to the National Assembly and mobilized workers to keep up the pressure. Some of their members were invited to speak before the parliamentary commission discussing the bill. Bill 176 was finally approved on June 12, 2018. Although IWC and TAWA members received this news well and viewed as a victory several modifications (including specific articles and regulations for temporary agencies), they saw that the Bill did not satisfy major demands of the “stability and dignity” campaign. Still, considering the highly refractory response to changes to labor standards in Quebec, it is considered an enormous gain overall and an opportunity to open new paths for organizing immigrant workers.

Organizing Process

This reform contains some improvements in law and may lead to related amelioration of working conditions, and more importantly, and perhaps, as an unintended consequence shifts in a small way the balance of power between workers and their agency and employer. We see the reform as a limited victory. Limited because it does not address several key issues and it maintains the relationship of agency-employer-worker that creates a flexible labor force and therefore cheap, non-unionized workers. Below are the highlights of the organizing that contributed to the campaigns and the eventual gains made in this reform.

The first step was creating an organization in which leadership and membership is composed of agency and former agency workers. This has been an uneven process. The process of recruitment begins with meeting workers at subway stations after work, explaining the organization and inviting them to a meeting. It is a labor-intensive process. With those who come to meetings, the necessary first steps include rights education, accompanying workers through grievance processes on either labor standards or health and safety issues and building relations are all necessary first steps. Many workers, who have come through this process leave the organization, because of the temporary nature of their work and some move out of Montreal to pursue other opportunities. The organization has evolved with a relatively stable group at the core and a much larger number of irregular participants who can be mobilized or who bring in people with grievances or work-related problems.

The second step is leadership development. Those workers with a commitment to the organization receive formal training with workshops on labor rights, health and safety and organizing. One project involved the recruitment of nine women placement-agency workers, who participated in a series of workshop over an eight-month period. Organizational leaders have become articulate spokespeople on the issue of placement agency workers and have made presentation to unions, public meetings and rallies, university classes and to other allied groups. Spokespeople for TAWA have been effective in convincing allies to support worker demands and support their campaigns.

The third step is alliance building. TAWA is a member of a Coalition Against Precarious Work, which has been at the center of the $15 an hour minimum wage campaign. There is a relationship of mutual support and demands of the member groups have been shared. For the recent legislation, five key allies emerged and contributed their support in different ways. There were several university-based research projects that documented the working conditions of agency workers. These projects added legitimacy to the demands, and researchers collaborated in public events with TAWA leaders. Several journalists did in-depth reporting on the conditions of agency work, and presented their programs and articles in mainstream outlets. The combination of academic and journalist presentation legitimized worker claims and gave them greater visibility. Other community groups working on issues of the non-unionized and a broad provincial-wide coalition supported the demands of TAWA and had lobbied over the past several years for reform in labor standards to better protect agency workers.

Over the past eight years, TAWA representatives have made many presentations to unions. Many union leaders began to understand the impact that agencies were having on their ability to recruit new members and build locals and some specific union groups supported and collaborated with TAWA, including sending an organizer to work with our group. Finally, the Department of Public Health of Montreal declared agency work to be a public health issue, and worked with TAWA to produce a report and video testimonials of TAWA members on agency work. The combination of these factors had put agency work on the public agenda in Quebec and created a favorable context for the delegation from TAWA when it met with the “Chef du Cabinet” of the minister of labor to present demands and experiences on June 4, 2017.

The campaign developed a systematic approach, naming the campaign Stability and Dignity and outlining the demands. From May until September, workers and organizers met to design the materials and utilized postcards that were sent to the Minister of Labour by agency workers and allies, naming the campaign and supporting the demands. In November TAWA organized a press conference and intensified the signing of cards, including at the offices of the Labour Ministry. Several rallies followed with workers and allies culminating with a demonstration in May at the National Assembly in Quebec City. The specific actions of the campaign were part of longer-term building process led by agency workers. The campaign established TAWA as the leading organization on agency work and the public voice on the issue.

In closing, in Quebec, which experienced many years of neo-liberal policies, and a community sector that has become, with some exceptions, a service sector attached to the provincial government, both organizing processes and victories have been exceptional. TAWA, supported by the IWC, can be credited with keeping the issue in the public eye, building the necessary alliances and public awareness to get the reform. With these changes, the level of conflict and demands can be augmented and the reforms can be used by agency workers to contest violations in the work place. TAWA has grown as a significant organization with experienced leadership and is ready to build more strength and explore new ways to organize and mobilize placement agency workers.

Manuel Salamanca Cardona is a PhD candidate at McGill University and volunteer and board member of the Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC). Mostafa Henaway is an organizer, with IWC, Eric Shragge is a volunteer and board member at IWC.

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