The death of a Toronto gas station attendant who died trying to stop a man from driving away without paying for fuel has cast a spotlight on working conditions for vulnerable workers, even prompting an Ontario MPP to propose a new law to protect them.

Jayesh Prajapati, 44, died last Saturday night at the midtown Toronto Shell gas station where he worked after he was struck and dragged by an SUV driver who had filled up with $112 worth of gas and fled without paying.

Gas-and-dash deaths across Canada:

  • Grant de Patie, a 25-year-old gas station attendant, was killed in 2005 when a teenage driver refused to pay $12 for gas in Maple Ridge, B.C. His death prompted Grant's Law, a provincial law that implemented the pay-before-you-pump system at all B.C. gas stations.
  • Jimmy Wiebe, 50, was shot during a night-time robbery while working alone at a Shell station in Yorkton in 2011. The province is considering passing Jimmy's Law to protect workers in such situations.
  • Hashem Atifeh Rad, 62, was killed when he tried to stop a driver from leaving without paying at a Petro-Canada station in Mississauga, Ont., last year.

Prajapati, an immigrant from India who was married with a child, died at the scene. Police have issued a warrant for Max Edwin Tutiven, 39, who is a suspect in the case.

Prajapati’s wife and brother-in-law have alleged that Prajapati was expected to pay out of his wages for motorists who drove off without paying for gas.

"That’s why he was trying to save his daily wages of $112. He came out of his cabin to try and stop the guy," Prajapati’s brother-in-law, Hemant Kumar, told CBC News.

The owner of the Shell station has denied that this is the station's policy.

Vulnerable workers

The tragedy reveals a growing but largely hidden problem, said Denna Ladd, coordinator with the Workers Action Centre.

"Mr. Prajapati’s case reveals how vulnerable workers have very little power or voice in the workplace. We do get lots of calls and people coming in

[to the centre] because of this. These kinds of unfair deductions from wages are absolutely happening all the time."

According to Ladd, among the most vulnerable are workers in service jobs, such as taxi drivers, restaurant employees and those in the retail sector -- those who have access to cash or a till or those who get paid on a so-called honour system, where the customer pays only after consuming the service provided.

"If the till at the end of the night is not cashing out properly, people are told that it will get taken out of their wages or tips. This has always been a phenomenon in the industry, but given the growing service sector, it’s only going to get worse," said Ladd.

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Toronto Police have issued an arrest warrant for Max Edwin Tutiven, 39, who is a suspect in the gas-and-dash death of Jayesh Prajapati. (Toronto Police)

"For workers who are new to Canada, where language is a barrier, for people who are young and don’t know their rights, or for anyone who basically can’t afford to take on an employer and say, ‘Your practice is against the law,’ they won’t complain because they will face reprisal from the employer, including losing their jobs."

Over 90 per cent of people who file complaints to the Ministry of Labour do so after losing their jobs. Under the current system, the onus is always on the worker to make the complaint, because the ministry does not have the resources to take a more proactive approach, according to Ladd.

"They only have 30 inspectors to do proactive inspections covering six million workers in 350,000 workplaces, so that’s not adequate," said Ladd.

The Ministry of Labour has 140 inspectors in enforcement standards offices across the province, with a dedicated team of 30 to do proactive inspections, while the rest deal with complaints.

On Monday, the ministry coincidentally announced it will spend another $3 million to hire 18 more enforcement officers over the next two years.

"Theft should be the company’s responsibility and not an individual worker’s responsibility. They’re not going to know if someone’s going to gas-and-run or if someone’s going to steal something. It’s theft that’s absolutely beyond their control. They’re not a police officer trained to do that type of work," said Ladd.

Investigation launched

The Ministry of Labour has launched an investigation into Prajapati’s death, which is routine whenever there is a workplace fatality, and also to probe allegations made by his relatives and friends that his wages were deducted to pay for gas-and-dash thefts.

"There were rumours and claims that the employee was having deductions from his wages for stolen gas and that is illegal under Section 13 of the Employment Standards Act," said Matt Blajer, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour.

"Even with written authorization, an employer is not allowed to make deductions for faulty work, cash shortages, lost or stolen property where the employee did not have sole access or total control over the cash or property that’s lost or stolen. In this case, he didn’t have sole access, because the person could pump the gas himself."

Mike Colle, Liberal MPP for Eglinton-Lawrence, has introduced a private member’s bill to curb gas-and-dash thefts by introducing pre-payment so people have to pay before they gas up.

"What it will do is take away the whole craziness around gassing and dashing," said Colle. If approved, it will be known as Jayesh’s Law.

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Deena Ladd is coordinator at the Workers Action Centre in Toronto. (City of Toronto)

There were about 1,500 such drive-offs in the Greater Toronto Area last year, though the vast majority go unreported.

Last year, Hashem Atifeh Rad, 62, was killed in a similar incident at a  Petro Canada station in Mississauga, Ont.

"They’re just too prevalent and everybody thinks they’re ripping off the oil companies when they’re really endangering the poor gas attendants, and it’s too common a crime that the police don’t have the resources to follow up on, so [the perpetrators]  think they get away with it," said Colle.

"It’s really about paying attention to our vulnerable minimum wage workers. They shouldn’t have to risk their lives working for minimum wage jobs. To have two of them dying in the last year pumping gas, we have to wake up and do something. We just can’t tolerate this. These people don’t deserve to be risking their lives providing a basic service."

Proposing heavier fines on employers

Aside from pre-payment, the bill proposes heavier fines for employers who deduct wages from workers to compensate for gas thefts and license suspensions for people who are convicted of drive-offs.

A pre-pay system, which is in place in British Columbia and across the United States, has reduced gas thefts in those jurisdictions, Colle said.

However, Ontario Labour Minister Linda Jeffrey said the prepay solution is not popular with the industry.

"There are significant concerns from stakeholders about the feasibility of the pay-at-the-pump laws…Other jurisdictions have not seen the expected results or uptake after passing the legislation."

Colle said he is disappointed at Jeffrey’s stance, "because the vast majority of people I’ve talked to, especially vulnerable workers, think it protects their lives and stops this type of dangerous activity."

The gas station where Jayesh worked is in Colle’s riding. "I didn’t know him well but he was very affable and very friendly," he said.

In a statement after Prajapati’s death, Shell Canada said it was "saddened by this senseless loss of life at one of our retail sites."

The company also emphasized that under no circumstances are sales associates or retail employees to intervene during criminal activity, and that employers are prohibited from deducting wages because the employer had property stolen.

Higher gas prices, more drive-offs

Jim Stonely, co-owner of an independent gas station in Toronto’s Corktown neighbourhood, said he doesn’t make his employees pay up for people who gas-and-dash, but he knows several other gas station owners who do.

While Stonely was saddened by Prajapati’s death, he said he wasn’t surprised by it. "There’s a lot of drive-offs these days, about three to four a week. When the price begins to escalate, there’s more of a trend."

Gas thefts peak when the price rises above $1.25 a litre, and fill-ups of $50 or above typically prompt drive-offs. There is no customer profile of the type of person who is likely to engage in such activity, nor a time of day when it is more prevalent – it even happens in broad daylight, according to Stonely.

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Liberal MPP Mike Colle has introduced a private member's bill that would have drivers pay before pumping gas in Ontario. (Mike Colle)

"You’ll never see a cabbie drive off without paying, because they’re in the same boat."

Stonely has advised his employees not to run after drive-offs, though they often do.

"They’ve run around the corner and up to the light chasing a drive-off. But you never know who you’re confronting. I tell them it’s just not worth it," he said. "My employees take it personally. It’s like they ripped them off [personally]

. There’s no big oil company taking the hit."

At Stonely’s station, employees can print off a ticket that says "drive off" to account for gas thefts. If they get a licence number, police are called.

"But they don’t usually do anything; it’s not a priority for them. A lot of times they’ll contact the customer and tell them to come back and pay," said Stonely.

Customers occasionally do forget to pay unintentionally because they’re distracted, talking on their cellphones and drive off, he added.

Stonely has installed the pay-at-pump credit card machines due to customer demand, but he’s not entirely sold on the idea.

"Because of the small profits we make on the gasoline, we do need the sales in the retail store, and if customers pay at the pump, they don’t come in," he said.

Besides, Stonely, who likes to get to know his customers, laments how impersonal the pay-at-the-pump system is.

"We have a lot of regular customers where I will let them fill up and pay me later if they’re short on cash."