Saturday morning in a Forest Hill parking lot is the setting for a predictable parade of wealth on wheels: only one Hummer, but a busy flow of BMWs, Lexuses, Mercedes SUVs and other big-ticket-consumer carriers. I'm waiting for something more unusual, an old school bus that will make stops at the homes and workplaces of employers on the Deadbeat Boss Tour, organized by Toronto Organizing for Fair Employment (TOFFE).
Eventually, two buses arrive decorated with banners and balloons and filled with men and women who've been fighting for unpaid wages they say they are owed. They have the Ministry of Labour orders and cancelled cheques to back up their claims.
Energy is high as a trio of African drummers leads the placard-carrying crowd around the corner on foot to Thelma Avenue and the home of Scott MacDonald, owner of a garment manufacturing company called Beautiful South. MacDonald has been ordered by the Ministry of Labour to pay some $6,900 in unpaid wages.
Our "tour guide" for this stop is Akram. "Every day he said, 'I promise I will pay you today,' but nothing happened," she says.
MacDonald is nowhere to be seen. He admits to NOW in an interview later that there is some money owing former employees, "but nowhere near what they're looking for, and that's the problem. They claimed they worked holidays when the company wasn't even open. Now they're trying to embarrass us into paying, and it's not going to work. They're misrepresenting the information large."
MacDonald says the workers "would have been paid a long time ago if we hadn't got stiffed (by a former customer) for 50 grand."
Back out on Spadina Road, a woman complains about the "noise" (they don't get drummers around here too often) making "everyone suffer on their day off," which, of course, is sacrosanct. Everyone patiently tries to explain to her why we're here, but there's a deeply rooted barrier at work here, and it's not language. Another local says he's all for paying wages, but don't go to anybody's house. "You can get an order." Yup. Done that. Maybe money and justice are like love. When you're desperate, you can't get any.
Onto the bus and on the road through Moore Park to Leaside. Someone has been tipped off at the offices of Crystal Claire, so two Toronto police officers puffed up in bulletproof vests are there to greet us. A company called Glamour Look used to be located here. Before it went into receivership in October 2003, Glamour Look manufactured cosmetics for companies like Estée Lauder.
Our tour guide, Woody, says, "We will never forget this place. We shed our blood and sweat and got nothing owed to us." A neon-green placard reading "Glamour Look?" with Chinese lettering and a face with bleeding lipstick effectively expresses the rage and pain of these workers.
The ministry has ordered two former Glamour Look directors to pay $659,000 in unpaid wages, vacation and overtime.
One of them has filed for bankruptcy and the other has resigned as a director, but TOFFE says the latter has not stopped acting as a director and should be held liable for the wages. The director has filed for a review of the ministry's order.
A Crystal Claire representative comes out of the building to hand out a lawyers' letter, also available in Chinese, and to explain, "Sorry, guys. We really are sorry. We are not Glamour Look. We are a different identity, a different company." The crowd seems a little skeptical. Several calls placed later by NOW to the factory go unanswered.
In Ontario, enforcing ministry orders for back wages is a difficult task. Currently, 63,000 people are owed more than $214 million in unpaid wages.
Don't try this in Quebec, where the laws that say workers should get paid tend to be enforced.
Back on the bus, we head down Birchmount past little factories and Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals to Springbank, a dead-end street above the Bluffs. Paul MacDonald, who owns a new-look home in this older neighbourhood, is the boss of North Star Trading.
According to a Labour Ministry order, MacDonald owes workers more than $47,000. He's out front of his nice house as workers place a STOP Bad Boss sign in the driveway.
MacDonald tells NOW later that he got wrapped up in a bad business deal with the former managers at his plant and ended up holding the financial bag to the tune of $400,000. "I didn't do my due diligence," he says. "I was stupid. The operation has cleaned me out completely. People can come and petition, but what am I going to do?"
Way up on Commander Boulevard, near McCowan and Finch, is the site of a fromer car part manufacturer. A number of workers were laid off here last September.
Near Christmas, the remaining employees were also terminated. The company then filed for bankruptcy and reopened.
TOFFE has asked the Ministry of Labour to go after the company's former director, who did not respond to NOW's requests for an interview, and a related company based in Mississauga for money owing workers.
The ministry is still investigating, but former workers were informed in May by the ministry that in very few situations involving bankruptcy do employees receive any part of their termination or severance pay. "Preferred" creditors like banks and Revenue Canada get first dibs on any money owing.
"When it comes to the employees, usually there's no money left," says lawyer Avvy Go, who represents workers in the Catelectric case.
Belinda Sutton, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour, says the province has embarked on an "aggressive enforcement strategy" targeting employers who owe wages. "An Employment Standards Action Group has also been set up to identify gaps in current operations... and foster compliance with employment standards legislation."
But deadbeat bosses, says Parkdale Legal's Mary Gellatly, who's representing former North Star workers, are rarely taken to court. "The ministry really needs to strengthen the enforcement tools."
Gee, almost makes you think there's one law for the rich and another for nah, couldn't be. This is Canada!