Two former Shaw Communications employees are blowing the whistle on how the telecommunications giant broke employment law for years.
Rob Browridge and Tasha Lowe say Shaw underpaid them by declaring them independent contractors when they should have been paid as employees.
"It’s really mean. It seems mean-spirited to me," Browridge said. "The amount that I was getting paid was pretty brutal … with no benefits, with nothing."
"You would expect something like this maybe from a smaller business or something, but this is a company that is highly profitable. They can afford to pay people properly," added Tasha Lowe.
Browridge was a cameraman and Lowe was an editor with Shaw’s community TV division in Vancouver. They worked there at different times, each for more than two years.
Documents show Shaw dictated their full-time hourly pay and schedule. However, they received no pay for overtime worked, no vacation pay and no deductions for taxes, Canada Pension Plan or Employment Insurance. They said Shaw told them that’s because they were considered self-employed "independent contractors."
"I had to file my taxes and they wouldn’t give me a T4," Lowe said. "At tax time, I owed the government or the CRA[Canada Revenue Agency] about $3,000."
"I know for a fact this is still happening to other people who are still working there," said Browridge. "They’ve been working there for years longer than I did, so they should be employees. They should be able to take a vacation."
Both said they complained to management, but were told if they didn’t like it they could leave.
"We were basically constantly threatened in a way that if we were to speak out or question anything that could cost us our job or we’d be punished in some way," Lowe said.
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Both filed complaints with federal authorities at different times after they left. Shaw was found to be in violation of the Canada Labour Code in both cases, deeming them employees.
Under the law, a worker is an employee if their earnings, schedule, duties and place of work are determined and controlled by the employer.
"They can’t have their cake and eat it, too," Browridge said. "They can’t have people as independent contractors without any benefits, but then expect them to be at their beck and call 100 per cent of the time."
Payroll taxes unpaid
The rulings also suggest Shaw was shortchanging taxpayers by failing to remit its portion of EI and CPP contributions.
The company was told to remit back pay, which it did. However, the timeline in these cases shows Shaw carried on with its practices, even after being told it was in the wrong.
Lowe wasn’t hired until a year after Browridge left — just as Shaw was being ordered to pay him properly. Even so, the company then shortchanged Lowe for another 2½ years before she left in 2012. She received back pay for one year, all that's allowed under the law.
"We [Shaw employees] were not allowed to talk about it — never allowed to say [Rob’s] name. We’re never allowed to talk about any contracting situation," Lowe said.
The workers said they are only aware of the practices in their one small department in Vancouver.
Shaw is one of the country’s largest telecommunications companies, with several divisions across the country and 12,500 employees, as of 2011. The company reported net revenue of $250 million in one quarter last fall.
"They make so much money from their digital phones and from their cable subscriptions," Lowe said. "We had to attend quarterly meetings to talk about how much money they were making."
Shaw assessing practices
Shaw declined to be interviewed about the labour law violations, but sent a statement from its president.
"As a leading employer, Shaw is committed to ensuring that our workplaces are compliant with the law. We have a strong track record for creating workplaces that promote employee flexibility, wellness and other accommodations," said Peter Bissonnette.
He did not say whether the company has stopped paying employees as independent contractors.
"Over the past several months, we have been assessing our practices and working with a relatively very small number of contractors to ensure we are compliant with the Canada Labour Code while offering flexibility in our arrangements to attract talent and continue to make our operations successful," Bissonnette said.
Go Public asked how many people Shaw has classified as "contractors," but the company declined to provide any more information.
A current employee, who does not want to be named, claimed the company continues to break the rules. That employee said five editors and "a handful" of reporters in Vancouver are still paid as independent contractors, but treated as employees.
"I worked hard for this company. I deserve the benefits from the entire time spent here. I am hoping that your story will cause them to realize that this is not going away," the employee told Go Public.
Calls for broader probe
Browridge and Lowe said they are upset because their complaints weren’t taken further by the authorities.
"We really thought this would prompt, you know, a big investigation of some sort so that they don’t do this again — and it didn’t. They [government] clearly said that they weren’t going to investigate the company," Lowe said.
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada is the department that enforces labour laws in federally regulated sectors such as telecommunications. Both Lowe and Brownridge said HRSDC indicated their complaints would be treated as individual cases only.
"I said in my documents to the government, 'This is a more widespread problem than just me, one person. Would you investigate it?' And they said ‘Well, no. We don’t do that. If other people have an issue they have to submit a complaint’," Browbridge recalled.
"[Current employees] are not going to come forward … because if you do this while you are working there they are going to fire you."
A former B.C. manager in employment standards enforcement told Go Public individual complaints often don’t lead to bigger probes, because authorities don't have enough resources to go after companies, particularly big ones.
"It makes no sense to me, because the cost of administering enforcement is miniscule relative to the benefits of enforcing payment," said Graeme Moore, now with the Employment Standards Renewal Coalition.
"There’s about 25- to 30-per-cent advantage to business by treating employees as if they are not employees," Moore said. "If labour is 50 per cent of your cost and you can get a 25 per cent advantage on your competitor by cheating, you have yourself a very healthy market domination."
He believes more and more companies are classifying employees as contractors and getting away with it.
"It’s being done across the board by small and large companies alike. It’s a way to minimize cost and maximize profit," Moore said. "It’s not as if the government is toothless or powerless. They have teeth. They have power. It seems they just choose not to bite."
HRSDC confirmed it has prosecuted just one case against an employer for multiple violations in the last four years — and that was for terminating employees without proper notice. It also confirmed it does not report violations such as Shaw’s to the Canada Revenue Agency.
"Where there is a finding that an individual is an employee for the purposes of the [Labour]
Code, this is not reported to any other agency," HRSDC said.
Browridge said that leads him to one conclusion.
"So if you are a big company, you are laughing," he said. "You can just keep breaking the law."