‘Something is not right’: lawyer questions Cornwall taxi labour law compliance

Lawyer Etienne Saint-Aubin listens to a question from a member of the Cornwall Police Services Board Wednesday, April 5, 2017. Saint-Aubin is asking the board to look into whether local cab companies are complying with provincial labour laws. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

CORNWALL – A local lawyer is asking the police board to look into whether the city’s taxi cab companies are upholding current employment standards.

Speaking to the Cornwall Police Services Board Wednesday morning, Etienne Saint-Aubin, who is also the executive director of the Legal Clinic, said some taxi drivers are working many hours and having little to show for it.

“They worked eight to ten hours a day and they barely took home a few bucks, as a result of that, and we’re still coming in below the threshold for social assistance and Ontario Works,” Saint-Aubin said.

The problem was flagged when those drivers applied for welfare, he explained. “This is something that involves the weakest of our citizenry. Those who are at the greatest vulnerability and disadvantaged.”

In a letter dated July 27, 2016 from the city’s social services department to one of Saint-Aubin’s clients, it states the driver is declaring earnings that equate to $3.91 per hour – far below the minimum wage of $11.25.

According to the letter, the driver had worked 63.5 hours and declared $248.32 income.

“(When) the social and housing services expresses this kind of dismay and takes this kind of action, then something is not right,” Saint-Aubin said.

He said there’s a general practice that a taxi driver would take home 40-45 per cent of the daily revenue while the “owner” would take the balance (55-60 per cent).

Given the nature of the work, the names of the complainants have been kept confidential. “You stick your neck out. You’re in jeopardy. Your employer knows that you’re a trouble maker. That’s why I have brought no names here. I’m old enough to know there can be consequences,” Saint-Aubin told the board.

He said there’s enough case law to show there’s an employer-employee relationship and asked the board to get its own legal opinion. Saint-Aubin asserts the taxi industry has sought to “blur” the distinction between an independent contractor – where the Employment Standards Act doesn’t apply – and an employee.

Mayor Leslie O’Shaughnessy challenged Saint-Aubin on that assertion. “The money he is paid. There’s no employee benefits on his behalf – CPP, unemployment insurance – by the employer?”

Saint-Aubin: “That is correct, sir.”

O’Shaughnessy: “Are you aware of any other jurisdictions that have possibly a similar bylaw that have implemented or enforced the Employment Standards Act?”

Saint-Aubin: “That is the essential question that I was unable to obtain and I agree that is always a key that should be available to a jurisdiction like this. It’s a fair question.”

Speaking with Cornwall Newswatch, Saint-Aubin said the case hasn’t reached a level of a lawsuit but he explained that he wanted to apprise the board so it could do a system-wide review and make any corrections necessary.

The Cornwall Police Services Board is mandated with overseeing the city’s taxi industry and enforcing the taxi bylaw – an anomaly in Ontario municipalities.

A report will be coming to an upcoming board meeting.