Since its 2017 launch, a pilot project tackling workplace abuse has recovered over half a million dollars in unpaid wages for vulnerable workers who could not otherwise afford a lawyer. It has also built legal clinics’ capacity to provide employment law support and educated employees about their rights on the job.
But the Ford government’s 30 per cent budget cut to Legal Aid Ontario threatens to squeeze the initiative’s reach.
The Mobile Justice Project represents community legal clinics’ response to declining union representation and the rise of precarious work in the province. Its employment law service is a significant shift from when only around three of 15 legal clinics in southwestern Ontario offered support in that field, said Doug Kwan, associate executive director at Mississauga Community Legal Services.
“It’s worth every penny,” Kwan said of the project. “You can see the on-the-ground impact. The majority of people wouldn’t even try and enforce their rights had they not had access to this service.”
With a modest annual budget of $ 310,000 to pay for three roving employment lawyers to help community legal clinics, the project has won a total of $ 540,171 for vulnerable employees across the region. A recently concluded independent review of the initiative has found that it recovered an average of $ 10,145 per client for employment standards violations, wrongful dismissals and human rights issues.
The review by PC Human Resources also interviewed 23 clients who received legal support through the project, and found that 78 per cent “would have given up on their employment issue” without the project’s support, while 22 per cent said they would have tried to represent themselves in court or would have gone into debt to hire a lawyer.
After experiencing mental health problems on the job, Lisa Phillips’s doctor recommended contacting a lawyer — something she couldn’t afford to do. She turned instead to the Mobile Justice Project in the Huron-Perth area. Although the details of her case are subject to a nondisclosure agreement, she says the service was “the difference between having a job and not having a job.”
“You begin to think, maybe I don’t have any rights,” she said. “But then when you speak to somebody who says, ‘yes you absolutely do,’ it restores your faith in yourself.”
A funding injection under the Liberals in 2015 provided $ 9.8 million for community legal clinics, with $ 2 million devoted specifically to improving clinic capacity — including a boost to services such as workers’ rights law. Changes introduced under the Liberals also expanded eligibility criteria so that more precarious workers were able to get legal support.
In 2016, a report by two independent experts commissioned by the Ministry of Labour to review the province’s workplace standards found that Ontario faced serious enforcement issues and that there were “too many people in too many workplaces who do not receive their basic rights.” The same year, Kwan and a group of legal clinic lawyers conducted a needs assessment for southwestern Ontario and identified workers’ rights as a major gap — prompting the Mobile Justice Project.
Now, the project’s services are more needed than ever, said Kwan. Legislation passed last year by the Ford government reversed the majority of new labour reforms introduced under the Liberals — including a commitment to hire 175 new enforcement officers to inspect workplaces for employment standards violations.
“Now (enforcement) is up to workers who are already vulnerable in their workplaces. The province is expecting them to find or access legal services that they may or may not be able to afford, and legal services that may or may not be available because of cuts,” Kwan said.
While the pilot was made permanent before the Ford government’s cuts were announced in April, Kwan said “devastating” Legal Aid budget cuts will still have an impact.
“Our staff for the program travel thousands of miles every year to meet clients, to go out to teach employment law,” he said. “It’s going to restrict their movement, unfortunately.”
“The catchment area covers such a large geographic space; there’s so many different communities with so many different needs,” he added. “I wish we had more funding to hire more people to really bridge the geographical differences.”
Emily Keene, who supported Phillips’s case and works as the project’s employment lawyer covering Hamilton, Brantford, Niagara and Huron-Perth, said her clients range from young workers in precarious jobs to older workers with a disability to temporary foreign workers.
“A large demographic of the people we are helping ultimately are living with both financial issues and disabilities, invisible and visible, which is adding to the stress of navigating the legal system,” she said.
“Working life is for a lot of people very intrinsic to their identity,” she added. “Most of us also don’t imagine a situation where that’s threatened or where we feel intimidated to speak up about problems at work. Having someone on your side — you can’t really put a price on that.”
In addition to providing legal support, Keene wants to help continue to build legal clinics’ workers’ rights expertise. Kwan says one of the project’s great strengths is that it draws on community legal clinics’ local knowledge, helping its roving employment lawyers better target their services to specific areas of need, such as migrant labour.
“If the community legal clinics were replaced with, say, a call centre, our lawyers would not have helped as many people, won as many awards, provided as many public legal education seminars or connected with worker organizations as they have in the short 2.5 years of the project,” he said.
“Cuts will weaken community legal clinics and thus our link to the community. If we can’t provide competitive wages to attract and retain quality people, then the project will be in danger. And if there are not enough funds to pay for the mileage, then staff can’t meet with workers who are already apprehensive about sticking their necks out to enforce their rights,” he added.
While the independent review of the project calls it “a successful demonstration of a collaborative or shared services model,” Phillips simply credits it with turning her life around.
“I’m a completely different person now because of the work that Emily did on my behalf. I’m well now and I’m functioning again. Because of the work she did, it gave me the confidence to start believing in my own abilities again,” she said.
“This is a program that needs to continue.”
With files from Jacques Gallant
Sara Mojtehedzadeh is a Toronto-based reporter covering labour-related issues. Follow her on Twitter: @saramojtehedz