Consider This
Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Businesses need to treat workers fairly

First published: July 26, 2006

The sign in the front window of Reg Ward’s office at the corner of Division Street and University Avenue says it all: Vindicated. Following a 10-year battle with Canada’s largest insurance company, he will get a $1.4 million settlement for money owed from insurance renewal policies he sold prior to being terminated in 1996.

This is a marvelous story of tenacity and justice for a hardworking man, who persevered under extraordinary circumstance at a great personal and financial cost. With suit and countersuit being filed between the company and Mr. Ward, he lost his retirement savings and ensued additional costs bringing him to the brink of bankruptcy as Manulife attempted to paint him as a culprit. A doctor testified the stress from the legal battle was probably a major factor in Mr. Ward developing diabetes.

But, this is not the only recent decision against a major corporation for treating employee unfairly.

Bell Canada was forced to pay $104 million in a settlement following a 14-year legal challenge for pay equity for nearly 5,000 operators, affecting some who used to work in now closed Port Hope office. The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada filed a claim for the largely female operators in 1992 with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The case was referred to a tribunal and has been the subject of numerous legal challenges, going all the way to the Supreme Court. The parties agreed to mediation late in 2005 and the deal was reached last month.

It is these kinds of tales working people find inspiring.

Even small victories, like Lisa Goudreau’s fight against Bell Canada for overcharging her on a monthly bill seems to stir a sense of outrage. The owner of the Urban Loft on King Street in Cobourg fought a tough battle back in March after she received a whopping bill for more than $6,000. Again, persistence paid in spades, as she was able to convince the company a mistake was made.

What this speaks to is the incredible fortitude it takes to get justice from Canada’s business community. Certainly, not every business falls into this category, but the reputation of everyone from small entrepreneurs to large corporations is suffering at the expense of some pretty bad apples.

For many this is no surprise. After watching the courts south of the border make their judgments in cases like Martha Stewart, where she received information to make unfair trades on the stock exchange or Conrad Black’s upcoming fight in court over funds allegedly skimmed from transactions some investors say he was not entitled to after several newspaper businesses were sold.

But these pale to the unimaginable pain caused to employees of Enron, the energy giant that went bankrupt while top executive milked millions of dollars as the company went down the tubes. It was discovered employees lost 70 to 90 per cent of their retirement plans’ assets during this time. When the company finally collapsed, many lost their entire pension.

This list is long. There are the lesser known cases like Adelphia Communications Corp, once the sixth largest cable operator in the United States declared bankruptcy in June 2002 after it failed to report several billion dollars in debt or HealthSouth Corp, the largest U.S. operator of rehabilitation hospitals overstated earning of $2.5 billion since 1999 or Tyco International Ltd. where the former CEO and other top executives milked the company for over $170 million in loans without getting appropriate permission or notifying shareholders.

While these huge companies get the attention of the mainstream business press for unethical behaviour, there are countless examples of unfair treatment of employees every day from the smallest businesses to the largest multinational corporations. These would include unpaid overtime, unfair dismissals, harassment and a long list of working conditions that are against labour laws. Any complaint is a scarlet letter for the worker, who will be branded a troublemaker and could have difficulty finding another job. This is even worse in rural communities like Northumberland, where the tight-knit business community can easily share information about “bad” employees without anyone every knowing.

Also, many people have the resources, either time or money, to take on battles like Mr. Ward or others. And, while inspiring, there is a note of caution in the subtext of these events. He paid a massive price that was not economic with his health and his personal life. Not many people can do this.

It is next to impossible to expect the Ministry of Labour to investigate all the problems. The overstretched staff and limited resources and cannot possibly allow the department to be proactive. For this reason, the provincial government must set up a system to protect workers’ rights by providing funds to assist those with legitimate complaints. Still, without the ability to have a hotline for workers to anonymously register justifiable concerns, and then followed up with an investigation, nothing will change.

Some may say this is the work of unions. But many workers, especially in small and medium-size businesses, would not dare to organize for fear of the backlash or being fired or blacklisted.

Mr. Ward’s story reminds us of how heroic someone can be in the face of incredible odds. Let his example remind the business community of its responsibility to treat workers fairly and the government’s responsibility to make sure they do.

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