Where do workers turn for help when they have a problem on the job? What do they do when no one is inspecting their workplace and violations are rampant? Well, they call us!
We receive hundreds of calls on our Workers’ Rights Information Phoneline. People call in with urgent questions about how to deal with work problems ranging from unpaid wages to harassment to unjust dismissals. In this edition of Stories from the Frontlines, we spoke with Erendira, a Workers’ Action Centre organizer, who supports workers over the phone to develop a plan to defend their rights at work.
Workers’ Action Centre: What are the common problems that workers call in hoping to solve?
Erendira: I get a lot of calls about unpaid wages, harassment and bullying, and lack of information about workplace safety. Often the worker has several problems at once, like not being paid as well as being misclassified as self-employed and so on. And when it comes time to hold the boss accountable, workers often don’t have information about their employer. Once a bad boss gets away with cheating his workers, he’ll keep taking advantage by not telling them about safety hazards and giving them the hardest jobs. In factory jobs, they are pushed to work more and work faster in the middle of a hostile and dangerous workplace. In the cleaning industry, employers often create very unsafe conditions such as forcing workers to clean with water close to electrical outlets or not training them on how to deal with toxic, hazardous waste. The construction workers who call me are afraid they will be fired if they don’t finish their work in a short time frame, so they are forced to work too fast to take the proper safety precautions. In so many different types of jobs, employers show no concern for workers’ safety.
Are these work problems connected to the recent cuts to workers’ rights?
Erendira: Definitely. For years, workers have needed things like stronger enforcement of their rights, paid sick days, and equal pay for equal work. So to see these rights that came into effect in 2018 get ripped away makes it more obvious that Ontario’s labour laws are not strong enough. In fact, the cuts to workers’ rights give employers lots of confidence to violate the basic rights that we still have. Too many employers feel like they don’t have to live up to Ontario’s employment standards. They will even say it out loud: “These are the conditions we have and if you don’t like it, you can leave.” Our phoneline is so important because it’s where workers can tap into the collective power to fight back.
What are some common, helpful tips that you suggest to workers who call in for help?
Erendira: The first thing I tell workers is to document what is happening!* For many of the workers who call me, the problem doesn’t come from not knowing their rights, but from not keeping proof of what happened. You document by writing down everything that happened on the job, saving your text messages and emails to and from your boss, taking pictures where possible, and recording your own voice as you describe the situation. Keep records of what you said to your supervisor and how he or she replied so that you don’t have to rely only on your memory. The second thing is to ask someone for help sooner! Even sharing with friends and coworkers might offer some good ideas. I’ve spoken to many workers who asked their supervisor about their rights, the supervisor did nothing, and then the worker waited until the situation became much worse before calling the Workers’ Action Centre. Please don’t wait! Even when it seems like a simple question, call for more information. When workers struggling through a work problem do call me for support, I sometimes invite them to a Defending Our Rights workshop where workers come up with strategies to deal with their workplace problems together.
If you have questions about your rights or are unsure of how to speak with your employer about a problem, don’t hesitate to call the Workers’ Rights Information Phoneline, available from 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm on Mondays to Thursdays at (416) 531-0778 (toll free at 1-855-531-0778).
When you’re in a crisis at work, advice about your next steps from one of our organizers might make all the difference in improving your working conditions or in getting justice. You will also get connected with a movement of workers who won’t stop speaking out for decent work. Check out this Facebook post, which is one example of the many creative ways workers find to fight back — and don’t forget to share!
*To find out more about why documentation is important, read 3 Things You Can Do to Protect Yourself at Work.