TORONTO - Hundreds of angry demonstrators descended on the Ontario legislature Wednesday to demand that the provincial government protect workers' severance pay when companies go under.

Laid-off workers aren't getting the compensation they're entitled to from their deadbeat employers, and it's up to the provincial government to make it right, said labour activist Winnie Ng.

"Workers, particularly immigrant workers, are used, abused, and then discarded like a piece of scrap metal - and we're saying that's an injustice," she told the crowd.

Workers are entitled by law to severance and termination pay, she added.

But when auto parts firm Progressive Molded Products Inc. shuttered its plant north of Toronto last July, the 2,400 non-unionized workers who were thrown out of work didn't get a penny of what they were owed, she said.

"Something is really wrong when workers who are the backbone of the manufacturing sector are put at the back - are the last on the list - as non-secured creditors to access any bankruptcy money."

A group of about 100 former Progressive Molded Products workers who joined the rally said they still haven't received the compensation they're owed.

Andrea Clarke, 58, worked for the company for 23 years and said she should have received about $25,000 in severance and termination pay.

"You're hoping that you'll still get something," she said. "Then they say they have to pay their creditors first and the employees are down to the bottom."

Since October, more than half of the country's job losses have been in Ontario, well beyond its 39 per cent share of the total working-age population.

Ontario lost 160,000 jobs during that period, with its beleaguered manufacturing sector being particularly hard hit.

Premier Dalton McGuinty said he's sympathetic to the cause, but it's up to Ottawa to rewrite bankruptcy laws to ensure laid-off workers receive the compensation they're owed.

"I just don't think that working men and women should rank behind banks, for example, when it comes to payouts from bankruptcy funds," he said.

"We're talking about groceries and rent and children's clothing here, and as a society, I think we attach higher value to those needs than we do to having banks paid back."

An incensed Ken Lewenza, president of the powerful Canadian Auto Workers union, said he's sick and tired of hearing McGuinty and Labour Minister Peter Fonseca pass the buck.

"If I hear one more time from this minister of labour that this is a federal responsibility - even though it affects workers in this province - he can kiss my ass!" he shouted to the cheering crowd.

Fonseca - dubbed the "minister of corporate concern" by Lewenza - said he's lobbied the federal government for changes that would move employees "to the front of the line" under bankruptcy laws.

Ottawa can also enrich its Wage Earner Protection program, which provides financial support to Canadians who are shortchanged when their employer goes bankrupt, he said.

But there is no sub-national government that has a program to protect workers' severance, Fonseca said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Ontario did have a law, brought in by the New Democrat government in 1991, that protected workers' severance. But the Conservatives scrapped it soon after they took office in 1995.

The New Democrats say the province should collect a premium from businesses that would be used to protect severance pay - an idea Fonseca dismissed as a job killer.

"That tax would burden companies as well as do the opposite of what we're trying to do, which is create jobs," he said.

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