A Toronto mom is calling out what she says are "exploitative" business practices after a media company nearly withheld money her twin boys earned delivering newspapers — reversing its decision after she complained on Facebook.
Luckily Elias and Ezra are only 10, so they don't exactly have any bills to pay. But the entire episode, Amelia Golden said, is evidence that common contract work can sometimes leave the most vulnerable workers in financial straits.
Looking to make some money over their summer holiday, the boys took on a paper route with the Beaches Mirror, delivering newspapers to 100 homes for Metroland Media Group. It only paid about $2.50 per hour, or $20 per week, which they'd split between them.
"They're 10, so there's not a lot of other jobs they can get," Golden said. "And for them, it was worth it."
Ezra hoped to start saving for a new bicycle. Elias wanted to save enough for a new deck for his scooter, a cool $260 he estimates.
It was straightforward enough. A selection of flyers was delivered to their doorstep, which they would organize. Then the newspapers would arrive. Elias and Ezra put the flyers in the papers, wrapped them in a plastic bag and delivered them. Since the route isn't in their neighbourhood, Golden would drive them to the area.
"It was tiring and a little bit confusing at first until we got the hang of it," Elias said, adding that he enjoyed meeting people who lived along the route.
Ezra agreed it was difficult work, though he emphasized that he didn't especially care for the job but liked the money.
Golden saw a value beyond dollars and cents.
"They had to work together as a team ... and then we were all together on Thursday nights doing deliveries together, we'd go out for dinner. It was kind of a thing," she told CBC News.
The job went well, for a while.
'They did the work, they should be paid'
Then one Friday morning, after the boys had made their deliveries, the paper unexpectedly dropped off a big stack of flyers. There was a note: these particular flyers hadn't arrived early enough to make it into the Thursday paper and they needed to go out.
But there was a hitch. The boys would be paid for their work, but just two cents per flyer — $2 total, one for each of them. To make things worse, Golden said, the paper told them this same scenario would start happening more frequently, since fall is the busy season, so they'd better get used to it.
"I said that's not acceptable," Golden recalled. "You guys made the mistake, you didn't have the flyers in there and you're relying on my kids to kind of make it up for you and you're not compensating them properly for it."
She spoke with the twins and they made a collective decision to quit. The company told the boys that they wouldn't be paid for the three weeks of work they'd done since the last pay period because the contract stipulates that at least 30 days is required to give notice.
Golden, a workplace and human-rights investigator, argued that the contract should be torn up because the work the company now demanded was not in the agreement.
"They would have kept that $60 from my 10-year-old kids. They did the work, they should be paid," Golden said. "It's exploitative. Their business model is set up for the most vulnerable people, people who obviously likely can't get another job."
After the family posted the details of the dispute to Facebook, asking others to call Metroland Media on the boys' behalf, the company reversed its decision and compensated the boys for their work.
The company declined a request for an interview, but stood by their policy in a statement. A spokesperson told CBC News that Metroland "deals with such breach of contracts on a case by case basis" and that it had every right to withhold wages from the boys.
According to Ali Daneshvar, a Toronto-based corporate lawyer, cases in which companies stipulate the working conditions and hours of work are likely to favour the labourer if the person is considered an employee, not an independent contractor.
"The law actually doesn't even look at the contract," he said, adding that if a case like this were to become a legal battle, "the courts or Ministry of Labour will go beyond [the contract] and look at the facts, the real facts on the ground.
Daneshvar says people who deliver newspapers should probably be considered employees, not independent contractors.
"If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it must be a duck," he said.