Employers claim extortion as drivers protest unpaid wages
Officials of a trucking company that saw former drivers protest unpaid wages outside its premises in the Peel Region in the Greater Toronto Area recently, say they are being targeted and threatened in a bid to squeeze cash from them.
Tony Sandhu, president and Pawel Sandhu, CEO of Cargo County based in Mississauga, Ont. said former drivers who signed contracts and were hired as independent contractors have filed cases in labor court claiming they were employees, demanding payment for stat holidays and overtime, among other things.
Deena Ladd, executive director of the non-profit Workers Action Centre (WAC) says her group, the affected drivers and supporters gathered on Oct. 30 in a peaceful protest outside the company’s premises.
She says they were met by about 30 to 40 men who were very aggressive and made sexist and misogynistic comments. “We had elderly people in our delegation, women and children. It was shocking to see their behavior, they were very aggressive and looking for a fight,” she said. Loud music was also played to drown out the protesters’ chants.
Imraj Sidhu, CEO of Ontario Bulk, who was present during the protest said Cargo County employees and supporters frustrated by the accusations went out and confronted the protesters.
Ladd said a truck was driven near the protesters and came close to running them over. Videos circulating on social media show police officers removing an individual from the vehicle.
Sidhu said the driver was slowly trying to make his way out of the yard. He honked his horn, but the protesters crept up toward him.
Constable Himmet Gill, Peel Regional Police, said that he was aware of the protests about unpaid wages.
“They were raising awareness about the issue they faced. They were respectful to police officers that showed up and they let them know why they were protesting,” Gill said.
He said the protesters were not harassing anybody and they have freedom of speech. “They were not being a nuisance,” he said.
Lawyer Andrew Kania whose firm represents Cargo County said some former drivers who had signed contracts as independent contractors complained to the labor board saying they were employees, so they should be getting other monies that employees are entitled to.
“There are existing Canada Labor Board (CLB) cases for these drivers, and we’ve defended them. There are no orders currently requiring this company to pay anything. They are not in violation of anything,” he said.
Kania said the company is fighting these cases because these people would be severely overpaid if they are rated as employees.
He said, “Our position is they are doing something unfair. Cargo County has the right under the law to follow the CLB process, they have their appeals under way. They are following the legal process.”
WAC’s Ladd said the workers have been misclassified. “If you look at legislation, it is very clear as to how you define a worker and how you define an independent contractor.”
She said the employer controls how much they get paid, when they work, how they work and supplies the tools of the trade.
“The contract is null and void because they are not independent contractors. It doesn’t matter what I sign. If you employ me as an independent contractor but I am actually a worker, that contract is null and void,” Ladd said.
Company owner Sidhu says most drivers want to be independent contractors – one for the tax benefits and two because their income is going to be higher. “We encourage them to be employees,” he said.
Kania said if people have difficulty understanding a contract, they shouldn’t sign it, they should go to a lawyer.
“If in the contract it says they are responsible to a certain extent for at-fault accidents, that’s a business risk they will have accepted as part of being paid more money than an employee,” he said. “These are choices people make about how they want to be paid. A lot of drivers want to be independent contractors. This not something they are forced to do.”
Driver Amrish Dutta who is not linked to the latest protest says an Ontario-based company withheld his wages while the pandemic was raging. The father of two, who lives in Brampton, Ont., said the issue was resolved through third-party mediation as well as community peer pressure.
“Every driver and owner-operator should ensure they review their employment contract,” said Dutta who now works for a different fleet and is happy with the way he is being treated and paid. “This should be an essential exercise similar to a pre-trip inspection before joining any fleet.”
Kania said the protests are wrong and defamatory because protesters are going around saying that people are thieves. “They are piercing the corporate veil and are going after the owners of the company, they also protested outside their house,” he said.
Ladd said her group did not participate in a protest outside the company owners’ home.
Kania wants the protesters to follow the legal system. “We will respect the decision from the CLB,” he said.
So why protest when the legal process is underway?
Ladd said County Cargo has not been cooperative in the legal process. She said the company is forcing workers into a situation where when there is an accident or something unfortunate happens, they face deductions.
“They keep saying to us, file a complaint. Should I keep filing complaint after complaint, worker after worker? A company should not be operating this way,” Ladd said.
She said there is an epidemic of wage violations in the trucking industry. “We are just not picking on Cargo County.”
She said WAC has visited several trucking companies, including Cargo County, against whom complaints have been made, spoken to them, and given them letters with a deadline to pay up. “Some of them do, some of them don’t,” she said.
Amid claims and counter claims from former workers and employers, the issue is also being played out on social media within the Punjabi trucking community. Posts and comments ignite tensions and tempers flare, adding fuel to the fire of discontent.
By Leo Barros