The Workers’ Resource Centre sees common scenarios where workers do not understand their rights and options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.
For someone experiencing legal issues in the workplace for the first time, navigating the system for information and help can be a dauting task. Legal firms may charge several hundred dollars for a consultation, legal aid clinics usually have narrow financial thresholds to meet to access their services, and the internet is full of vague and inaccurate information. Understanding your basic rights in the workplace can be even more tricky if you are new to the country, have language barriers, or do not have access to the internet.
At the Workers’ Resource Centre (WRC), many new clients come to us every week with little more than a feeling that their workplace rights are being infringed upon. But they usually have no idea what their options are. The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the difficulties that everyday people can face in understanding their workplace rights and finding reliable help to explain potential options available for resolution or recourse.
When Employers Exploit Temporary Foreign Workers
One of the more unfortunate situations we see regularly at the WRC is employers exploiting their non-citizen employees, or temporary foreign workers, who are working on a closed work permit. These employees often do not ask too many questions about their workplace rights.
A typical scenario is an employer forcing these vulnerable employees to provide kickbacks to the employer from every pay cheque the employee receives. The employer may also require the employees to work overtime and general holidays without paying them properly. The employer then threatens to revoke the employees’ work permits if they refuse or try to seek help.
Due to the nature of a closed work permit (meaning the employee can only work for the employer who is sponsoring them), these employees are often unwilling to stand up to their employers or to get legal help. They believe it is not worth risking their work permits as they are often desperate to earn money to support their families. Many of these workers do not receive adequate information and education on their workplace rights before starting their new jobs, which in turn leaves them highly susceptible to exploitation.
Contracting Out of Minimum Obligations
Another situation that makes it difficult for people to know about their workplace rights is employers including terms in employment agreements that do not comply with Alberta’s Employment Standards Code. Employers cannot contract out of their minimum obligations under the Code. But not every employee knows this or what minimum standards they are entitled to.
Some common examples we see at the WRC of employees “agreeing” to things which are not legal include:
- deducting pay for staff uniforms
- providing mandatory two weeks’ notice when resigning or else risking a deduction from their final pay cheque
- deducting pay for loss of or damage to the employer’s product, such as broken merchandise
- overtime or general holiday pay structures that do not meet the minimum requirements
It’s not always obvious in these situations that the worker’s rights are being infringed upon because they are “agreeing” to these terms of employment. This is particularly true for people who are new to the country or have little experience with these issues.
Human Rights Issues that Employment Standards Deems to be Non-issues
One of the more confusing issues for employees that we regularly see at the WRC is where both the Alberta Human Rights Commission and Alberta Employment Standards seem to have jurisdiction over (the right to hear) an issue. But one of the agencies views the issue as a violation, while the other does not.
The most common example we see are situations involving job-protected leaves for medical reasons. The Employment Standards Code says that if you need a medical leave from work that is supported by your health professionals, then your employer must hold your job until you are able to return so long as you are not off work for longer than 16 weeks. This is typically cited on termination letters given to people who reach out to us for help after they lost their job because they needed more than 16 weeks off. However, the Alberta Human Rights Commission mandates that employees cannot be terminated because of a mental or physical disability (with very few exceptions). This is discrimination. If there is a human rights issue, the Alberta Human Rights Act takes priority over other legislation.
So, in these cases of medical leaves, the termination appears to be legitimate from an Employment Standards perspective, but may be illegitimate from a human rights perspective. This makes it very difficult for people to realize their workplace rights have been violated when the legislation cited in a termination letter appears to support the legitimacy of the termination.
A similar issue can occur for people who are ordered off work by WCB Alberta (Workers’ Compensation Board) following a workplace injury. It used to be that employers were obligated to return the employee’s position to them once they were physically able to return to work. But WCB’s legislation recently changed. Now, according to WCB, employers no longer have to offer back an employee their position following a leave of absence due to a workplace injury. That being said, the Alberta Human Rights Commission may view this as discrimination based on a disability and find merit in cases where an employer does not return an employee’s job to them following a medical leave.
Help is Available
These are only a few examples of the difficulties people face in both understanding their rights in the workplace and knowing how to access or navigate the legal system when their rights have been violated. The legal system is largely reactive to violations, not preventative. Therefore, people often do not understand their options to resolve workplace issues until it is too late.
The WRC offers free consultations to all Alberta workers who have questions about issues they are having with their employers, no matter how big or small. Give us a call if you suspect your workplace rights are not being honoured, or if you have general questions about the different agencies that deal with employment issues and their processes.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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