Bill Morneau is half right about precarious labour
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – Ottawa and the provinces can do more than simply cushion the blow of precarious work. They have the power to curb precarity itself.
Oct. 28, 2016. Editorial
We should congratulate Bill Morneau for opening up an important conversation about the future of work and the role of government, even if that’s not entirely what he intended.
At a recent meeting of Liberal Party insiders, the finance minister said government must do a better job of adapting to the changing workplace. Morneau suggested precarious work is here to stay, and that Canadians and their governments better get used to it.
The comment sparked controversy among many people frustrated with the Liberal government’s apparent fatalism in suggesting that the best we could hope for is to mitigate the impact of precarity. But there’s value in the minister’s comments, and in his prescription, even if he hit the wrong tone. He was, to be fair, roughly half right.
There’s no question we have to deal with the reality of precarious work. Some 52 per cent of workers in the GTA and Hamilton region, for example, are precariously employed in temporary, contract or part-time positions. These same trends are playing out in cities across Canada and beyond.
Precarious workers, an increasing number of whom are in low-wage, temporary jobs, have been largely left behind by governments that have failed to keep pace with the rapid, technology-driven evolution of the workplace. Our social safety net was woven at a time when secure, full-time jobs, replete with pensions and benefit plans, were the norm. New protections are needed for a new world where that’s no longer the case.
A year into its mandate, the Trudeau government has taken a few important steps toward that goal. Ottawa has offered some hope to the growing ranks of workers whose employers no longer offer traditional pension packages, striking a deal with the provinces to expand the Canada Pension Plan, though modestly, and lowering the age at which Canadians can qualify for old-age security.
In its first budget, the government stuck to its promise and earmarked wise investments for infrastructure, including so-called social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and community housing – an outlay that will stimulate the economy, create good jobs and provide social benefits.
The Liberals’ most ambitious social policy, the Canada Child Benefit, promises to raise tens of thousands of children out of poverty and allow many who couldn’t otherwise afford child-care to re-enter the workforce.
But Morneau is right to warn his party that there is still much to be done to protect workers from the worst threats of precarity. Three measures would go along way to doing just that:
- Do more for parents. The child benefit, while welcome, won’t be indexed to inflation until 2020, thus providing less to Canadians than seemed to be promised. That should be remedied. Moreover, the day-care situation remains dire. Licenced spots exist for just 22 per cent of children under 5. In Toronto alone, almost 12,000 eligible children are in the queue for subsidized spaces. A universal, quality, affordable child-care system would vastly improve the prospects for parents, whatever their job situation.
- Deliver pharmacare. Canada is the only country with a universal health-care system that fails to cover the costs of prescription medicine. While all Canadians would benefit from a pharmacare program, the rise in precarious work adds urgency to the need for a better way. Most temporary and part-time workers don’t have an employer-provided health plan and, as a result, many can’t afford to fill needed prescriptions.
- Fix Employment Insurance. The government is rightly considering an overdue update to the EI system. Only about 40 per cent of unemployed Canadians can now access EI, and that number is far lower in a city like Toronto. Precarious workers, in particular, often do not work long enough in temporary jobs to qualify for benefits or training. EI exists to get unemployed workers back into the labour market as quickly as possible and ensure they are not forced onto welfare because of trends in the workforce they can’t control. The current system is not working for those who need it most.
Strengthening the social safety net is clearly part of the solution to the precarity puzzle. But where Morneau went wrong was in his implication that the changing nature of work is wholly outside the government’s control. Ottawa and the provinces can do more than simply cushion the blow; they have the power to curb precarity itself.
Ontario seems to understand this. The province is in the process of reviewing its labour laws with an eye to closing the emerging gaps in worker protections. As the Star has argued before, there are a number of steps Ontario should take to promote secure, decent work.
It should, for instance, reform the labour code so all workers get a minimum level of paid sick leave. Under the current system, ill workers in precarious jobs are too often left to fend for themselves. Ontario should also expand the legal definition of “employee” to cover those currently deemed “independent contractors” and who are denied protections provided only to permanent, full-time staff. And it should set a limit on the length of time an employer can use a “temporary” worker before giving that person a full-time job.
Despite Morneau’s claim, Ottawa, too, has its tools. The federal government should consider similar changes to its own labour code, which applies to the more than 800,000 employees in the federally regulated sector. Ottawa can also use its significant procurement clout to require businesses vying for public money to demonstrate that they provide decent work to their employees. And the Trudeau government should set a federal minimum wage that could serve as a model for the provinces.
Morneau should not be chided for rightly suggesting that Canada’s social safety net, designed for a different world, ought to be rethought, perhaps boldly, with the evolving nature of work in mind. But Ottawa isn’t powerless to shape that change. Morneau should encourage his party not just to ease the pain of precarity, but also to throw off the yoke of inevitability and take on the thing itself.
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