What is an employment contract? Are there any risks associated with working without a contract? Does the Act respecting labour standards protect all forms of work? Let’s take a look at the issue.
“I had understood that…”, “It seemed to me that…”, “I didn’t know that…”: Jocelyne Cotnoir often hears these sentences in the course of her duties as Assistant Director at the Montreal Legal Centre of the Commission des normes du travail. “They are uttered by employees who have misinterpreted, or worse, who were unaware of the nature of the agreement that binds them to their employer and which sets out their respective obligations,” she describes.
In other words, they misunderstood their employment contract, which covers all facets of work, from pay to job description to work schedule. According to the deputy director, migrants, people with little education and students are categories of workers who would benefit from knowing more about the workings of the labour market.
These misunderstandings have unfortunate consequences for the employee, such as reprimands, disciplinary measures or even outright dismissal. And they can dangerously undermine the bond of trust with the employer, not to mention the atmosphere in the workplace.
According to Jocelyne Cotnoir, many misunderstandings could have been avoided by binding the two parties through a written rather than verbal employment contract. “Even if they are both valid, it is easier to prove the content of the one that is written down on paper,” she explains.
It also emphasizes that a written contract must be read, scrutinized and understood before being signed. One should not hesitate to ask for clarifications or even to strike out certain clauses. “Her signature can never be used as a means of pressure or blackmail by the employer,” she says.
In the absence of a formal employment contract between the employee and the employer, the Labour Standards Act guarantees a kind of minimum floor in terms of labour rights. This is why it is impossible to work for less than the minimum wage ($10.75 per hour in Quebec). And this, even if the employee signs a contract that specifies it! “In the event of recourse, the clause would be rendered null and void and could not be invoked against the employee,” says Cotnoir.
Of note: the Labour Standards Act does not apply to certain categories of employment, such as self-employed persons, senior managers and independent contractors, among others. Unsurprisingly, undeclared jobs are not covered either. Beware,” warns the lawyer, “this type of work is often advocated by abusive employers who deliberately want to evade the law in order to exploit workers.