Most of us have heard people we know talk about lousy things that happen to them at work. Nicole Beaulieu certainly has – in fact, she hears that sort of thing all the time. However, unlike most of the rest of us, she is in a position to actually help.
Beaulieu is the executive director of the Sudbury Workers Education and Advocacy Centre (SWEAC), "a non-profit organization that offers free services to help workers." They are happy to answer questions from people who call or visit their office about the rules governing work and workplaces in Ontario, and they are willing to actively "advocate with [individual] workers, by providing support when they are facing an issue at work." But the single biggest thing they do is education. This month, SWEAC will be offering their introductory workshop eight times, with the goal of helping people throughout Greater Sudbury build knowledge, skills, and confidence for exercising their rights in the workplace.
These one-hour workshops will be offered in public libraries across the city – not only in Sudbury proper but in the surrounding communities, including Chelmsford, Lively, Garson, Dowling, and Coniston. Two of the eight will be offered in French. They will cover topics like pay, hours, holidays, termination, severance pay, and much more.
While people who work in all kinds of jobs are welcome to participate, Beaulieu said that SWEAC's "mission is to help mainly low-income workers and those in precarious jobs – meaning unstable employment. So they could be in a part-time job, a contract job, working through a foreign worker program or through a temp agency – basically everything that isn't full-time and secure."
There has not yet been much research published about the kind and extent of low-wage and precarious work specifically in Sudbury, but Beaulieu knows from her experiences with workers that there is plenty. Not only that, given how the North American economy continues to change, "it is becoming more and more of an issue because we are seeing more precarious work everywhere, including Sudbury." The three most common issues that she hears from people who seek information or support from SWEAC are employers not paying wages that are due (commonly called 'wage theft'), employers wrongfully dismissing workers or firing them in ways that don't follow proper procedures, and "harassment – bullying, even violence, in the workplace."
Beaulieu hastened to add, "We're not saying all employers are bad." However, these things do happen, and to more than just a few people, and SWEAC believes that the first step to dealing with them is for workers to know exactly what their rights are in a given situation.
Caceila Trahan is a youth outreach worker with the SPOT Program, a new teen drop-in centre supported by Better Beginnings Better Futures. Trahan said, "It's important that our teens understand their workplace rights so they aren't taken advantage of" as they become active in the labour market. For instance, she said, "Many of our youth didn't know that in the workplace they have a right to refuse unsafe work."
To help address that, they recently had Beaulieu come and do a workshop, and the youth responded very well. Workshops at SPOT are organized such that no one in the space is forced to participate, so it is not unusual to have only a fraction of the youth who are present involved. Trahan said that with SWEAC's workshop, however, almost all were actively engaged. She said that while there was plenty of solid information, it was "not a classroom environment" but something much more "approachable" – more like an "open conversation about the workplace" that happened in "a practical way where the facts will actually stick."
Beaulieu confirmed that the workshops coming up in May will be similar – "very interactive" and "very participatory."
"I believe that everyone would benefit" from the upcoming workshops, Trahan said. She added, "Especially marginalized people. Women, immigrants, youth – people that are going to be in these entry-level, working-class jobs."
SWEAC's Other Work
While education about rights is an important step, the centre recognizes that it isn't always enough on its own. Beaulieu said, "There is a lot of intimidation and fear in certain workplaces, especially when someone has a job and there's that mentality that you should be happy that you even have a job so don't piss off your employer if an issue arises." It is for that reason that they offer one-on-one support and advocacy as well.
Take, for instance, the situation of a truck driver who asked to be identified just as Bill. He had been working for a company quite happily and then ran into a situation where the employer refused to pay him money he was owed. He said, "It's not so much that they were refusing, but they disputed the numbers." The relationship with the employer deteriorated and he ended up quitting, and they still refused to fully pay him, so he approached SWEAC.
Bill said, "There was a fair chunk of money owed to me and we were going back and forth. Nicole was there every step of the way, giving me some guidance, what I could do, what I couldn't do. She even got in on the conversation with the payroll [department] and all of that, to go over the number and point out their mistakes." He got the money he was owed, and said he would definitely encourage others facing similar issues to call the centre.
Beaulieu said, "We can help, hopefully, motivate and encourage and empower workers to exercise their rights in a certain way that they don't feel intimidated because they do know what the law says, what their rights are, and how they can go about a certain situation. They know that they have our support behind them and they know that there are options out there for them."
SWEAC is also involved in supporting broader change for low-income and precarious workers. A few weeks ago, they hosted the Sudbury launch of a campaign called "The Fight for $15 and Fairness." The "Fight for $15" part refers to a North America-wide campaign initiated by retail workers in the United States demanding that the minimum wage be turned into a living wage by raising it to $15 an hour, a demand which has increasingly been adopted by unions, workers' centres, and other organizations there and in Canada. The "and Fairness" component is an Ontario-specific addition. Beaulieu said, "It is about getting better protections under the law and better working conditions for workers in these precarious jobs. Our provincial government is currently doing a review of the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act, so it's kind of prime time for us to tell the government what we want to see changed."
Beaulieu concluded that in all components of SWEAC's activity, "We're workers helping other workers." She added, "If a worker is facing an issue at work, or even if they're just curious about what their rights are, I think it's really important that they come out to a workshop and learn about it."
Scott Neigh is a writer, activist, and media producer based in Sudbury, Ontario. He is the host of Talking Radical Radio, the author of two books of Canadian history told through the stories of activists, and a blogger.