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Working retail can be a sweet gig for any student. Better hours and numerous positions await eager part-time workers. But big companies aren’t your friend, and the the staff need some help. Jeff Lagerquist reports

It’s nearly impossible to ignore the endless stream of shoppers, the ominous billboards and the glaring lights that cast a continual glow over Ryerson’s campus. Certainly there’s no denying that we live and study in the shadow of Canada’s retail giants. While some see these fixtures as imposing symbols of all-mighty consumer capitalism, many look towards them for jobs.

In Toronto, the retail sector workforce employs more than 140,000 people, according to the 2010 City of Toronto Annual Employment Survey. With such a high concentration of those opportunities just steps away from Ryerson, many students are eager to cash in. However, like any other industry, retail employers don’t always play by the rules.

Hanna Mohammed is a third-year journalism student. She’s also a sales associate and bra specialist at Victoria’s Secret; an employer she says doesn’t always provide her with enough support.

“I find the management is really sloppy,” said Mohammed. It took nearly a month for the store’s five managers to approve changes to her work schedule so she could attend all of her classes, and that was just the beginning.

Attorney Andrea Wobick works with law firm Green & Chercover and defends clients against injustices in the workplace. She says students in retail are prime targets for labour rights issues, and they rarely take action against employers.

“Students are, for the most part, looking to earn money for tuition and groceries. They usually aren’t willing to take on their managers or employer, so long as they get their paycheques,” said Wobick.

Eagar to earn, Mohammed would often agree to work overtime. Several of her co-workers found these extra shifts were not being documented.

“You really have to comb through your paycheque and make sure you are getting paid for enough hours,” she said. “It really adds up after a while.”

Victoria’s Secret is owned by parent company Limited Brands, which also owns Pink, Bath & Body Works, C.O. Bigelow, La Senza, White Barn Candle Co., and Henri Bendel.

The company drew $8.6 billion in sales in 2009.

In the retail game, big sales figures mean big line-ups. Retail workers are almost always on their feet. They wear a friendly smile — fake at times — as they serve their customers. Breaks provide much needed moments for rest and nutrition.

According to section 20 of Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, an employee is to work no more than five hours straight without a break of at least 30 minutes. Some employers pay during breaks, but it’s not required.

“The 30-minute break can also be split into two 15-minute breaks, but only if both the employee and employer set up an agreement. In any case, the break is mandatory,” said Wobick.

“We would usually get only a few minutes for our breaks,” said Mohammed. A frustrated co-worker eventually posted a copy of the Employment Standards Act in the break room to bring attention to this issue.

“They printed it out and underlined the part that says we should be getting half an hour,” she said.

That was back in June.

“People are still complaining about it,” said Mohammed. Management agreed to look at the issue after the busy holiday season.

“To be honest, I don’t think they will,” she said.

“Employers don’t get to choose when it’s convenient to uphold the Employment Standards Act. It’s their obligation to do that all of the time, regardless of holiday shoppers,” said Wobick.

Second-year photography student Callan Field worked for Vistek, a photography retailer, over the summer. Vistek has six locations across Canada, and Field worked over the summer as a shipping and receiving assistant.

“It was hard not being treated like an adult staff member,” he said.

Only 18-years-old at the time, he was by far the youngest employee. Field’s vaguely defined job description meant that he spent a considerable amount of time completing menial tasks around the store, and was often left sitting around the shipping department with nothing to do.

“It seemed like they just didn’t know what to do with me most of the time,” said Field, who was grateful to be earning money in his chosen field of study.

While boring afternoons spent watching the clock in the shipping department are by no means illegal, being asked to perform dangerous tasks certainly is.

“Looking back, some of the things they had me doing were completely unsafe,” said Field, who didn’t know his rights at the time. Having worked other jobs since leaving Vistek, he now has a clearer understanding of the law.

Section 43 of Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act states that employees have the right to refuse work that he or she believes to be unsafe. This can include machinery or equipment, potential workplace violence, or in Field’s case the physical condition of the workplace itself.

“It comes down to a judgment call that an employee has to make. However, that may be easier said than done when you have a manager standing over you,” said  Wobick.

“They had me climbing shelves over a storey off the ground,” said Field.

In the stock room at Vistek, employees would often scale the shelving to retrieve boxes containing high-end ink jet printers and large rolls of paper. The narrow space between the rows of shelves made it impossible to use a stepladder to access the upper levels.

Field and his fellow employees would balance themselves with one foot on the edge of the shelf and the other supported by the shelf across the aisle, as they passed heavy boxes down to a coworker.

“I was never really scared, but it wouldn’t have taken much for somebody to get seriously hurt,” said Field.

Field said Vistek did not offer any sort of safety training to its warehouse employees.

“In any workplace with more than 20 regular workers, an employer is required to have a joint health and safety committee with employees trained in how to deal with workplace safety issues,” said Wobick.

Ontario’s labour legislation uses an escalating scale of fines to punish delinquent employers. A first offense carries a fine of $100,000, and multiple infractions can cost as much as $500,000. But large corporations have pretty deep pockets.

It’s certainly a problem when you have large employers that can afford hefty legal fees to avoid prosecution altogether. And when the absolute maximum fine is a drop in the bucket for them, it’s fair to say that there is not equal bargaining power, even with the legislation,” said Wobick.

While working in retail may be tempting, resolving a workplace issue is generally more challenging than in other lines of work. Still, if you like uniforms and faking people skills, retail may be for you.

“The best part about my job is that I make money. That’s pretty much it. I’d rather not be poor,” said Mohammed.

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