Taking sides (Guest commentary)

Is hiring temporary workers unethical?

Yes. Employers are taking advantage of workers

By Karen Dick

The temporary industry is adding to the growing tier of second-class workers. About 13 per cent of the workforce (or 1.7 million workers) are temporary workers, according to Statistics Canada, earning, on average, 40 per cent less than their full-time counterparts.

In the past six years, the employment services industry in Canada grew from a $1.6-billion industry to $4.4 billion, according to Statistics Canada. Yet despite this significant growth, violations of basic employment standards and human rights are widespread.

An article in the Oct. 14 issue of the Toronto Star told the story of a group of Muslim women who worked through Spherion Staffing Solutions, some for up to a year and a half, at United Parcel Services (UPS). They made $1 an hour less than the permanent workers and were not paid for public holidays. When permanent jobs were posted, the women applied. But, for these workers, the permanent jobs never materialized. The women were turned down during the hiring process for refusing to shorten the length of their skirts for health and safety reasons — something that wasn’t an issue when they were temporary workers.

Stuck between two employers, the women spoke to the supervisor they worked with everyday. They were told they were not the responsibility of UPS. Forced to contact the agency they knew only from their paycheques, the women didn’t get a response for almost six weeks. Only after an intervention from the Workers’ Action Centre did Spherion decide to meet with their employees to hear their stories. Claims against UPS have since been filed at the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

The Ontario government is obviously failing to protect workers. In the Spherion/UPS case, the women were paid their public holiday pay, but only months after their last day of work and with the support of the Workers’ Action Centre.

Temporary workers repeatedly report incidents of human rights violations by temp agencies asking discriminatory questions in the application process or ignoring reported racism at the client company. HR professionals are complicit in making serious workplace and human rights violations invisible when they refuse to stand up for the basic rights of the people who are the backbone of the multi-billion-dollar employment services industry.

Vulnerability leading to job loss is only one symptom of this unregulated industry. Basic employment standards violations and low wages is another. Douglas Yardley, as reported in the same Toronto Star article, worked for the same steel company for three years. But, as a temporary worker, he didn’t enjoy the same benefits permanent employees who worked alongside him received. Paid public holidays were also denied. Yardley decided to fight for his public holiday pay and filed a complaint at the Ministry of Labour. He won. But each time a different agency came into the company, Yardley had to fight for the pay.

These injustices are common for workers who find themselves stuck permanently in temporary work through agencies.

Business agreements between agencies and client companies often deny agency workers the opportunity for a permanent job with the client company. Temp workers report working alongside newly hired permanent workers while they continue to work without benefits at a lesser wage. Many temp workers even find themselves training their permanent replacements.

Those working in the employment services industry must use their role to improve wages and working conditions. Temporary workers should make the same wage as permanent workers and agreements should not restrict workers from accessing permanent jobs. The recent report on the federal labour standards review, Fairness at Work: Federal Labour Standards for the 21st Century, makes both of these recommendations. It goes even further to say that after one year of service at a client company, temporary workers should be considered for a permanent position.

The report also recommends the agency and the client company be jointly liable. If the agency doesn’t pay up, then the client company should pay the unpaid wages.

The Association of Canadian Search, Employment and Staffing Services (ACSESS) has a code of ethics but doesn’t enforce it. This needs to change. ACSESS and its members should take proactive measures to address violations. Mary McIninch, manager of government relations for ACSESS, is quoted in the Toronto Star article saying “Until my eyes see numbers, I wouldn’t say this sector is any higher a risk than the others out there.” But the numbers are out there for those who care to see.

The government needs to ensure fair and accountable practices in the temporary staffing industry. Workers should receive fair wages, receive their statutory entitlements and gain stable and long-term employment. The government needs to expose and fine agencies that break the law.

Implementing these recommendations would be a concrete step towards ending the growth of second-class workers. Fairness is a fundamental principle of democracy and should be a basic entitlement in our workplace.

Karen Dick is a workers’ rights advocate with the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected] or visit www.workersactioncentre.org for more information.

No. They’re crucial to employers and the economy

By Amanda Curtis

Hiring temporary workers is certainly not unethical. Temporary work brings significant benefits for workers and employers. Denying companies and workers these benefits would be detrimental to the economy.

The world of work has changed, and HR professionals know this better than anyone. Temporary workers are in health professions, information technology, legal, sales, marketing, engineering, accounting, banking, manufacturing, government and management.

There is often a lack of understanding about the industry and how it works. In temporary staffing arrangements, there is only one employer of record — the staffing firm. The firms have a legal obligation to adhere to all employment standards, labour laws, human rights legislation and other applicable regulations.

The mandate of the Association of Canadian Search, Employment and Staffing Services (ACSESS), an association representing more than 85 per cent of the staffing industry, is to serve as a national advocate for professional ethics and standards in the staffing services industry. Members commit to a code of ethics and standards that promotes ethical treatment of employees and clients and adherence to all applicable employment and human rights laws. ACSESS does not condone charging fees to temporaries or to candidates and it has brought this issue to the attention of government on several occasions.

Last month, commissioner Harry Arthurs delivered his review of federal labour standards. He recognized the important role staffing agencies play as employers, and he recognized the value of the ACSESS code of ethics. In fact, he recommended that federally regulated employers, and the federal government itself, should only deal with firms that adhere to ACSESS’s code of ethics.

He also called for a federal committee to investigate industry practices. ACSESS has been successfully working in partnership with the Quebec government on a similar committee, and looks forward to doing the same at the federal level.

Permanent, full-time work is not right for every worker. Even full-time workers are seeking more flexibility, as evidenced by the growing popularity of job sharing, home offices, virtual offices, contract work and independent contracting. Some individuals value the opportunity to work part-time or flexible hours, whether as a lifestyle choice, as a means to finance their studies or as a form of semi-retirement.

For other workers, such as new Canadians, young people and women returning to the workforce, temporary work is an opportunity to experience a variety of roles in different workplaces. Temporary workers gain experience, providing a bridge to full-time permanent work if that’s the ultimate goal.

The professional skills-matching process used by temporary service firms is more likely to be free of barriers and discrimination, offering an entry point for workers with disabilities, young workers, older workers or new Canadians. These workers are eased into the workforce in a professional way, and often with the benefit of job-specific training. For new Canadians with international work experience, temporary assignments can provide the Canadian work experience they need.

If the economy is to continue to grow, companies need to harness a spectrum of valuable, skilled workers who are unable to work a traditional, full-time permanent job or who simply don’t want to. A flexible, available and multi-skilled workforce is important to the economy and it makes some of the employment benefits Canadians enjoy, such as extended maternity and paternity leave, more viable for employers.

Temporary workers play an essential role in keeping Canadian businesses competitive. In sectors that must manage through fluctuations in their business activities — be they seasonal, or dependent on cyclical economic factors — the ability to find and place staff on a temporary basis is essential. Special projects sometimes require special skills, but not on a permanent basis. This flexibility helps keep companies in business, and preserves the jobs of full-time, permanent employees as well.

These issues aren’t new to HR professionals across the country. They have a unique perspective on how critical staffing issues can be. A company that doesn’t have access to the right people, with the right skills at the right time, is a company that runs the risk of failure.

Temporary staffing firms exist to provide clients with the right person, with the right skills, at the right time. They cultivate and maintain a rolling roster of skilled, available workers who may not otherwise be accessible to clients.

A company looking for temporary workers should seek out a reputable and ethical agency. Ask questions about their recruitment and selection process, testing and training, and ask for references. A reputable and responsible staffing firm can be a valuable partner, so choose one that understands the company’s needs and reflects its values. A good firm takes worker complaints and disputes very seriously. After all, workers are their most valuable asset.

ACSESS members have joined together to promote good practices and a respect for employee rights because it is the right thing to do and it’s good for business.

Amanda Curtis is the executive director of the Association of Canadian Search, Employment & Staffing Services in Mississauga, Ont. She can be reached at [email protected] or visit www.acsess.org for more information.

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