The compliance model of employment standards enforcement: an evidence‐based assessment of its efficacy in instances of wage theft

AuthorMary Gellatly,Eric Tucker,John Grundy,Leah F. Vosko,Rebecca Casey,Andrea M. Noack,Jennifer Mussell,Mark P. Thomas
Date01 May 2017
Published date01 May 2017
The compliance model of employment
standards enforcement: an evidence-based
assessment of its efcacy in instances of
wage theft
Leah F. Vosko, John Grundy, Eric Tucker,
Mark P. Thomas, Andrea M. Noack, Rebecca Casey,
Mary Gellatly and Jennifer Mussell
This article critically assesses the compliance model of employment standards
enforcement through a study of monetary employment standards violations in
Ontario, Canada. The ndings suggest that, in contexts where changes to the organi-
sation of work deepen insecurity for employees, models of enforcement that empha-
sise compliance over deterrence are unlikely to effectively prevent or remedy
employment standards violations.
Inadequate employment standards (ES) enforcement is a widely acknowledged policy
problem across jurisdictions. There is growing recognition that the changing nature of
employment fuels precariousness in labour markets and creates an environment in
which employees face greater risk of experiencing ES violations. At the lower end
of the labour market, in industries such as cleaning, food services and accommoda-
tion, the increasing prevalence of sub-contracting and outsourcing further intensies
competition and makes ES violations a routine strategy of labour cost containment
(Bernhardt et al., 2013; Milkman et al., 2012; Weil, 2010, 2014). The limited resources
available to labour inspectorates (ILO, 2006: para. 370) and the dominance of a reac-
tive, complaint-based enforcement system (Weil and Pyles, 2006) means that only a
small fraction of ES violations are redressed in many jurisdictions.
Some jurisdictions have attempted to buttress workplace protections through the
adoption of reforms to their ES enforcement systems (Amengual and Fine, 2016;
Davidov, 2010; Weil, 2014). Many of these reforms reect a compliancemodel of
enforcement, which entails assumptions about the nature of violations and how
Leah F. Vosko, John Grundy, Rebecca Casey and Jennifer Mussell, Department of Political Science,
York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3, Canada, Eric Tucker, Osgoode Hall
Law School, York University, Mark P. Thomas, Department of Sociology, York University, Andrea M.
Noack, Department of Sociology, Ryerson University, 350 Victoria Street, Toronto, Ontario Canada,
M5B 2K3 and Mary Gellatly, Parkdale Community Legal Services, 1266 Queen Street West, Toronto,
Ontario M6K 1L3, Canada. Correspondence to: Leah F. Vosko, Department of Political Science, York
University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario, M3J 1P3, Canada; email:
Industrial Relations Journal 48:3, 256273
ISSN 0019-8692
© 2017 Brian Towers (BRITOW) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
regulation should be implemented. The compliance model presumes violations to be
largely exceptional rather than normal behaviour and due primarily to a lack of
knowledge among regulated parties (Gunningham, 2010). It casts regulated parties
as interested in legal compliance and therefore privileges soft-touch modes of regula-
tion. The compliance models conception of violations and the behaviour of regulated
parties diverges sharply from a deterrence model of regulation, which views non-
compliance with the law as often intentional behaviour driven by a costbenet calcu-
lus and warranting punishment (Pearce and Tombs, 1990).
This article challenges the theoretical assumptions of the compliance model in ES
enforcement in a context characterised by the growth of precarious employment con-
ditions, such as low rates of unionisation and low income as well as high levels of un-
certainty, through a case study of monetary ES violations
or what is known
colloquially as wage theft’—in Ontario, Canada. As in other jurisdictions, the Gov-
ernment of Ontarios recent efforts to improve ES enforcement draw heavily from the
compliance paradigm. Among other changes, starting in the mid-2000s, the Ontario
Ministry of Labour (MOL) produced more promotional material for employers
and employees on their respective rights and responsibilities under the Employment
Standards Act (ESA) and made greater use of self-help and settlements to expedite
the resolution of ES problems. Yet an analysis of administrative data on ES enforce-
ment in the province demonstrates how the compliance framework alone is a decient
model on which to base reforms to workplace regulation. Indeed, the empirical nd-
ings offered herein reveal a disjuncture between central premises of the compliance
model and employeesexperience of monetary ES violations. Contrary to the compli-
ance models emphasis on empowered and cooperative self-regulation, ES complaint
data suggest that imbalances in workplace power constrain the exercise of employee
voice and make seeking legal redress a risky venture for employees. The characteris-
tics of the ES complaints that are investigated and validated by the MOL also suggest
that monetary violations of ES are frequently not the result of ignorance or incompe-
tence on the part of employers. Rather, the relatively large median dollar value asso-
ciated with monetary violations, and the low rates of recovery of MOL-issued
monetary orders, point towards the intentionality of violations and employer recalci-
trance in the enforcement process. Findings from this Ontario-based case study
thereby suggest that, in contexts where changes to the organisation of work deepen
insecurity for employees and augment employer power, models of enforcement that
emphasise compliance over deterrence are unlikely to effectively prevent or remedy
ES violations and can exacerbate regulatory degradation (Tombs and Whyte,
2013a). Effective workplace regulation that helps pre-empt ES violations requires
enforcement models that start from a dual recognition of workplace power imbal-
ances and the likelihood that many violations are intentional.
The remainder of this article proceeds in three parts. Section 2 denes the features
of a compliance model of enforcement and the related notion of the enforcement pyr-
amid, contrasting it to more deterrence oriented approaches. Turning to the empirical
analysis, Section 3 describes the dominance of a compliance orientation in the en-
forcement of the Ontario ESA with attention to the case of monetary ES violations.
Against this backdrop, it provides a prole of the reporting behaviour of complain-
ants and features of complaints that run counter to the image of mutual interest
Monetary ES violations refer to the phenomenon of employees not being paid the wages and other mon-
etary benets to which they are legally entitled.
257The compliance model of ES enforcement
© 2017 Brian Towers (BRITOW) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd

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