“I was always worried. Am I going to have a job tomorrow?”
You can physically see the frustration and anger as Joe recalls to me his combined seven years of working between two of Lindsay’s largest manufacturing employers, Armada Toolworks and Holsag Canada, three of them as a temp worker.
Both jobs were a placement through Lindsay’s Global Human Resources, a for-profit company that supplies workers to both companies and is the legal employer of employees like Joe.
Joe is a hard worker in a working-class town. Despite what the City may want to project and what the new Greater Toronto Area arrivals may want to blissfully ignore, Lindsay has always been a working-class town. During its modern manufacturing hay-day, everything from chain, brake pads and plastic bags was made in Lindsay and all of those factories had jobs like the ones Joe took: physically demanding and often repetitive.
Globalization, free trade, automation and governments’ failure to grow infrastructure might have drastically reduced the number of those jobs available in Lindsay, but to some degree there have always been manufacturing jobs at the bottom of the pecking order here. Unless you had a connection, you started at the bottom with the lowest wage. It has always been thus, with one glaring exception: Back in the day if you got a job making lawn furniture or food casings in Lindsay, the company paid you a living wage.
Today in Lindsay, as in the rest of Canada, there is a good chance that the company you are working for is paying an employment agency a premium per hour to not be your legal employer. It is easier to get a Mason to show you their secret handshake than find out the mark-up that employment agencies make on such arrangements, but most analysts peg the rate at between 25 and 100 per cent, depending on the contract.
“I was desperate. I had a kid. I had bills to pay.”
Joe ended up at the employment agency when he lost his job when Fleetwood closed. His $18.53 an hour job vanished, and after his Employment Insurance claim ran out, desperate for work, he applied to Global, which would be his legal employer for most of the next two years. He started at $8.50 an hour. Like every ‘temp,’ Joe was drawn to the promise of being hired by the company he was actually doing work for.
Joe described his time at Holsag like it was two different jobs. As a temp, if he was absent, he would be given the “the nastiest job” upon his return – a job that was so arduous it would usually be assigned to several workers over a shift. Bonuses (another carrot use by companies who use employment agencies) were held back or denied for seemingly minor offences. He was once sent home without pay after officially launching a harassment complaint. Another time, he says he lost a $256 bonus for passing wind. When he was hired directly by the company, 19 months after, a lot of that changed. Absences weren’t singled out for punishment, supervisors didn’t call him ‘a temp.’ His hourly rate eventually climbed to $13.05 an hour.
I’m a working-class guy myself. And – full disclosure – I’ve been verbally and physically abused by a Lindsay employer – so I worry that I am just too biased; that I want to believe Joe when he says “I was treated like a piece of dirt.” So I ask Steve, who has been a full-time unionized employee of Armada Toolworks for over 14 years, about how temp workers are treated.
“Like disposable pieces of meat. Like sub-humans,” he matter-of-factly replies. Steve is proud of the work he does. He is a skilled worker with a specialized knowledge set.
Over the course of a three hour interview Steve describes how temp workers have often been used as a pawn in management-union negotiations during his time at Armada. He admits that some of his co-workers have looked upon temps as people stealing possible overtime from their own pocket.
Why are temp agencies used?
Joe never forgot how he was treated as a temp. “Why am I going to work hard for a company that treats me like dirt?” he asks rhetorically. Five other former clients of Global I spoke to echoed similar sentiments.
Why does a company use the services of a firm like Global? Why pay your lowest employees an even lower wage than you are capable of paying, giving them no security, protections or benefits? And what premium are they paying firms like global?
To try to get these answers, I prepared a list of non-leading questions (including some real softball ones designed to portray their companies in a positive light) and sent them to three local companies. All declined to participate. Holsag did tell me in writing that they use Global as a recruiting tool and that they would “use their services indefinitely.” They also said that they do not use the word ‘temp’ there, which is nice. This is met with laughter and flatly denied by three former Holsag temps who I had interviewed.
I turn to Global Human Resource for clues. I try to speak to them but no one returns my calls. Wanting to use their words, I turn to their website. To prospective businesses they offer the benefits of “cost certainties,” an “arms-length relationship with your workforce, as they are Global employees, and the employer burden is ours” and, wait for it, “the added benefit of an indefinite probationary period.”
So let me get this right: Placing an employee on probation indefinitely is a good thing?
I am a capitalist. I believe that workers should be paid according to the value they add to the company, but this just sounds Dickensian to me.
Why do businesses use the services of employment agencies like Global Human Resources? Certainly it can’t be the lack of benefits, the complete labour fluidity, and indefinite probation? Is it the high costs of recruitment (a fraction of what it once was because of social media)?
I’m sorry, but if it takes two years to decide whether or not you are recruiting someone, your recruiting skills leave something to be desired or you are taking advantage of people.
Companies like Armada and Holsag are by no means unique in this. And companies like Global are proliferating. The Toronto Star has reported that employment agency companies have increased in number by 20 per cent in the last decade.
In interviewing former Global clients I do not get stories of the outright abuse that were documented last year in the Star.
Some decried the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHIMIS) training, claiming they were told where to find the answers, but to be fair, anyone who has had to do that test (I have to do it every year myself) knows that WHIMIS certification is beyond a joke.
Ian C. commented: “They must not have read my form very well. I applied with over two decades of specialized computer knowledge and I specifically mentioned my bad back which prevents me from standing in one spot for long periods of time. They placed me at Armada. My work involved standing at the same machine for the entire shift.”
This is perhaps not ‘seamlessly fitting’ “the best personnel” to employers “unique job requirements” as the Global website declares, but we all get a little carried away in our marketing materials sometimes.
I ask Deena Ladd, coordinator of Toronto-based Labour Action Centre (LAC) and a leading advocate for marginalized and precariously employed workers about Bill 148.
That’s The Fair Workplaces and Better Jobs Act – some provisions of which came into effect Jan 1, 2018: Will it improve the lives of people who work for companies like Global?
Ladd has 20 years’ experience fighting for marginalized workers so for every story I’ve heard, she has heard thousands. She seems cautiously optimistic as she describes the equal pay for equal work measures as an “entry point to challenge employers who hire workers and call them anything but” full-time workers for their company. She explains that the biggest challenge might be the Employment Standards Act itself.
“It is a complaints-driven process and most people who use employment agencies are vulnerable,” whether by economic status, race or gender. Vulnerable people are the least likely to complain, let alone unionize. She almost gets me hopeful that hiring 175 more government employees is a good thing, in this case compliance investigators for the Ministry of Labour.
Bill 148 attempts to address what Ladd describes as “30 years of deteriorating employment conditions in Ontario.” The LAC continues to advocate for transparency in placement agency commissions.
Why knowing what percentage of the hour you just worked is being paid to a third-party private company should be considered with such secrecy is beyond me, but it’s possible that I’m just not smart enough to understand why a full-time job at a Lindsay factory used to keep you above the poverty line.
Joe feels he has learned his lesson. “Would you ever consider going back to a company like Global, if your situation were to change?” I ask.
“Never. You couldn’t pay enough to do that,” he says.
— This article originally appeared in The Lindsay Advocate’s print edition.