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Ontario investigates businesses allegedly breaking new labour laws

Ministry of Labour is stepping up enforcement to investigate alleged infractions

Ontario is investigating businesses that are alleged to be illegally going after employees in order to cope with a minimum wage hike, the labour minister said Monday.

The province's minimum wage increased on Jan. 1 from $11.60 an hour to $14 as part of sweeping labour reforms from the Liberal government, including increased personal emergency days and paid vacation time.

Before the changes came into effect, business groups warned that the increase was too quick for small businesses in particular to absorb the added costs. In the first week since the new wage kicked in, stories have emerged of some businesses implementing new rules to offset those expenses.

Labour Minister Kevin Flynn said the vast majority are complying with the legislation, but some business owners have been taking the increased pressure out on their workers, which both he and Premier Kathleen Wynne call "bullying."

"The minimum wage, I don't believe, ever in history has been raised without the business community raising a fuss or concerns," he said. "For some businesses to take it out on their workers, however, is completely unacceptable and it's simply wrong. It's the act of bullies that has no place in this province. I really hope that the businesses that have acted in this manner decide on sober second thought to reverse the decisions they've made."

READ: Minimum wage hike a bad deal for business, grocers say

A pair of eastern Ontario Tim Hortons franchisees -- who happen to be the children of the company's billionaire co-founders -- have made headlines for cutting paid breaks and forcing their workers to cover a bigger share of their benefits.

Flynn said that goes against the spirit, though not the letter, of the law, but another story about an east Toronto Tim Hortons franchise allegedly banning workers from keeping tips clearly contravenes the legislation.

"In some cases it appears (businesses) have gone to the point of doing things that are alleged to be illegal," Flynn said. "We're investigating these charges. The information that came out of Scarborough on the tips, where employees were ... alleged to have been asked to put their tips into the till, that clearly contravenes the legislation. So it's not just mean spirited, it's also illegal."

Flynn wouldn't confirm any specific ministry investigations, but said inspectors are being sent anywhere contraventions are reported.

The ministry is hiring up to 175 new employment standards officers and is stepping up enforcement. The goal is for all claims to be resolved within 90 days and to have one in 10 workplaces proactively inspected every year, Flynn said.

The new labour legislation includes increased penalties for employers that violate the law, streamlined collection methods and the ability of the ministry to impose interest on money owed to workers. The law also lets the government publish the names of employers that break the rules, something Flynn said it is "very willing to do."

Calls to the ministry about employment standards violations have been up recently by about 30%, Flynn said, though most are from people with questions about the new laws, rather than reporting suspected violations.

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