It’s past time to protect the ‘precariat’
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – Governments need to learn that the choice between workers and progress is a false one.
April 15, 2017. By
The rapid, technology-driven evolution of the workplace, which is relegating a growing group of people to part-time, low-wage work, has been endlessly confusing for governments that feel forced to choose between the needs and rights of workers and the economic promise of technological innovation.
Across the country, and in the Greater Toronto Area in particular, precarious workers, many of them millennials, have been largely left behind by legislators who say the shift is inevitable and there’s nothing much that can or ought to be done about it.
But the consequences of this complacency are cruel. Two new studies paint bleak portraits of the economic circumstances of young workers and others struggling to get by in the new economy. Together, they suggest that while governments may not want or be able to stop the evolution now underway, they must move quickly to address widening gaps in worker protections, lest the better part of a generation fall through the cracks.
The first study, from the British Columbia-based non-profit organization Generation Squeeze, describes the darkening outlook for young workers across Canada, and in Ontario in particular. With full-time wages declining and housing prices soaring, it’s much harder now than in previous decades to cover the basic cost of living. In 2003, it took an average of eight years to save for a 20-per-cent down payment on a typical Ontario home; today it takes almost twice as long.
And that’s for the lucky minority with full-time jobs. In Canada and beyond, contract and part-time work is quickly becoming the norm. In the GTA, 52 per cent of workers are employed in some version of precarious work, which often doesn’t provide benefits, pension or even minimum wage.
This economic instability carries troubling social consequences, too. Researchers have shown that hopping from gig to gig causes many to put off marriage or children – or to decide they can’t afford children at all.
The second study, from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, looks specifically at jobs in the so-called sharing economy, with companies like Uber, Airbnb and Doordash. This survey of more than 2,000 GTA residents found that about 9 per cent have participated in this emerging sector.
While many say they like the work, the majority feel they have no other options. Most are young, college- or university-educated people with families, for whom driving for Uber, say, is far from a temporary gig or a convenient income supplement, as these jobs are often characterized. Most have been at it for over a year and earn most of their income from this work.
Yet they remain classified as independent contractors and are therefore denied most protections under Ontario law. This leaves them vulnerable to abuse – and it seems employers are more than happy to exploit the opportunity. A recent story in the New York Times described how Uber uses new technologies and behavioural science to manipulate its drivers into working longer days than they would prefer, boosting company profits while cutting into workers’ hourly wages.
Part of the problem is that our labour codes were written for a very different world. Ontario is currently reviewing its laws with an eye to closing emerging gaps in worker protections. As the Star has argued before, there are a number of concrete steps Queen’s Park can take to significantly improve the lot of workers and to curb precarity itself.
Ontario should, for instance, 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. As the CCPA study shows, many sharing-economy workers are working full time, yet making less than minimum wage. That’s unacceptable.
It should also 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.
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.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau got himself in trouble last year by saying Canadians will have to get used to job churn, as if there’s nothing to be done about it. But Ottawa also has its tools.
It 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, as Morneau has said, governments will have to reimagine our social safety net, which was woven at a time when secure full-time jobs, replete with pensions and benefits, were the norm.
Ontario’s current experiment with a basic annual income is a welcome acknowledgement of this need, whether or not it’s the right policy. Ottawa, meanwhile, deserves credit for its investments in affordable housing, though it should reconsider its apparent aversion to universal daycare, pharmacare and dental-services programs, all of which have the power to protect workers from the worst threats of precarity.
The choice between workers and progress is a false one. Of course, governments can’t and shouldn’t want to stop innovation. But neither are they powerless to shape it or to protect workers from its worst consequences.