Thursday, March 8, 2012

New employment broker rules are pointless

The government announced tougher rules for employment agencies today. Employment agencies broker employment contracts between employers and job seekers. With the influx of temporary foreign workers, these agencies have become bigger players in the labour market.

Some workers have complained that some agencies have engaged in dodgy practices, such as charging workers fees for finding them jobs (a no-no) and misleading them about the terms of employment or the living conditions they will be provided with. These practices are part of the broader concerns raised by worker advocates about the exploitation of temporary foreign workers.

The government’s changes prohibit employment agencies from misleading
temporary foreign workers about their rights or their chance of becoming a Canadian citizen; pressure workers to lie to Canadian officials; intimidate or threaten individuals seeking work; or require workers to provide a performance bond.
There is no background in the news release explaining how often this occurs, but in 2009, Service Alberta reported 277 investigations into broker activities. My guess is, if the Government of Alberta is enacting a pro-worker regulation, there must be a real problem.

The question, though, is whether these regulations will make any difference?

Alberta already has clear legislation prohibiting things like charging workers to find a job, but these go largely unenforced because Alberta’s enforcement system is largely complaint-based. That is to say, workers (who often don’t speak the language, know their rights and are vulnerable to employer retribution) must figure out that they can complain, how to do so and whether the risk associated with complaining is worth it.

In deciding whether to complain, workers might well look at the government’s track record on dealing with complaints. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find any readily available data on the government website but, between 2007 and 2009, the government issued seven orders and pursued one prosecution (you’ll recall there were 277 investigations ongoing in 2009).

The bulk of investigations in 2009 resulted in no formal action or were abandoned due to lack of evidence or an inability to pursue the broker. The AFL report I linked to above notes that:
The Alberta government has no jurisdiction to prosecute brokers who are not operating in the province nor can it go after Alberta employers who allow such fees.

Reports from foreign workers suggest the brokerage problem has actually gotten much worse. Brokers based in the home country frequently use threats of violence against the worker or their family to coerce full payment of the fees or to ensure the worker does not complain to authorities about the illegal charges. This prevents the bulk of illegal fees from ever being reported to authorities, either in Alberta or in the originating country.
Employers operating outside the country are still unaffected. I was not able to find a copy of the amended regulation online (???) so I can’t tell if it has expanded its scope to allow the government to go after employers who use brokers who, in turn, engage in illegal practices. But I doubt it.

While the press release talks tough (“…a maximum fine of $100,000 and up to two years in jail.”), the reality of employment protections in Alberta is that the government doesn’t proactively investigate and rarely bothers to prosecute violators.

The upshot is there’s little chance of getting caught and almost zero chance of a consequence. Not surprisingly, there are widespread violations of the laws.

This press release, then, is just smoke and mirrors. It is designed to make the government look good while fundamentally changing nothing on the ground.

-- Bob Barnetson

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