After GM, we need a plan for the 21st-century workplace

Posted on in Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials
Nov. 30, 2018.   By

On Tuesday morning of this past week, fallout from General Motors’ announcement that it plans to close its Oshawa assembly plant at the end of next year dominated the news. Front pages overflowed with analysis; devastated GM workers aired their fears on live TV.

At the same time, not far away in Toronto, another announcement was made. Accenture, the international consulting firm, set out a plan to create an innovation hub in the city. It plans to hire 800 people to work on technologies from artificial intelligence to blockchain.

That rated only tiny stories on websites and in business sections. But in fact it’s more typical of what’s going on in the region. As has been widely reported, Toronto has been adding more tech jobs than any other North American centre for the past two years — 28,900 last year alone. Microsoft, Uber, Intel and a host of others are flocking here and hiring talent.

The auto industry itself is focused more and more on tech. Even as it signs the death warrant for the Oshawa plant, GM is adding hundreds of jobs at its Markham technology centre to help build the greener, cleaner “cars of the future.”

The issue, then, isn’t jobs; we’ve got plenty of those. It’s what kind of jobs, and who has the skills to do them. The Oshawa workers worried about how to support their families in little more than a year aren’t going to be hired by Accenture to work on blockchain, or by GM to research self-driving cars. The hard reality is that many may have to settle for service or retail jobs that pay a lot less than they’ve been earning and come with little or no security.

This problem of so-called precarious work is far from new, but politicians still fail to acknowledge its full implications and sometimes don’t even seem to understand it. Take Premier Doug Ford, who when asked about prospects for soon-to-be-laid-off GM workers cited the company’s plans to hire more engineers at its technology centre. He didn’t appear to fully grasp that adding jobs for tech specialists is no solution to someone working the line at an assembly plant.

Worse, Ford’s government is going in exactly the opposite direction from what’s needed to let workers like those cut loose by GM have a chance of actually thriving in the new economy, rather than just surviving.

So far, his plan to make Ontario “open for business” is being carried out on the backs of vulnerable workers. His government junked the modest gains for lower-paid workersbrought in under Liberals, such as two paid sick days and more notice for changes in scheduling. All that has been stripped away; workers with the fewest benefits and least control over their working lives will now have even less.

This is a social and political issue more than a strictly economic one. The GTA is more than holding its own on adapting to the post-industrial economy, as the boom in tech jobs shows. It’s the loss of stable, full-time unionized jobs that is feeding the crisis of inequality.

What to do? Governments know all this but they have mostly failed to update the social programs that are supposed to deal with it. Employment Insurance, for example, is still based on an old model of full-time, permanent jobs. And it’s become harder and harder to qualify for EI; less than 40 per cent of working Canadians are now eligible to collect if they lose their jobs, a gaping hole in the social safety net.

At the same time, as Sunil Johal of the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre noted this week, provincial employment and training services are largely failing to place out-of-work clients in meaningful employment. Governments talk about retraining workers displaced by economic change, but the programs they pay for simply don’t work.

What’s needed is a much more ambitious approach that confronts the realities of 21st-century work. It would of course involve updating such programs as EI and ensuring basic protections for the most vulnerable workers. But it would go much further.

It would include, for example, changes to medicare to cover such things as drug costs and dental care, which are now mostly tied to employment. Why should someone who loses her job at GM and the benefits that go along with that, say, also suddenly find it prohibitively expensive to keep up her prescriptions and get her teeth fixed?

It would mean taking another look at the Canada Pension Plan to make it possible for workers in part-time or contract work to contribute. It would mean keeping the cost of post-secondary education under control, given that higher education is essential in the new economy. It would mean designing training and apprenticeship programs that actually work. It would mean universal daycare and more affordable housing. Importantly, it would mean business taking a broader view of its responsibilities and focusing less on short-term profits at the expense of decent work.

It would mean, in short, designing an entire social eco-system appropriate to an age when life-long, stable employment is a rarity rather than the rule. It would assume that many people, perhaps most, will move among many employers and need both income support and effective training along the way.

Other high-wage countries are ahead of us in tackling these issues, and we can look to them for ideas. Some point to models like Denmark’s “flexicurity” approach, which combines both flexibility for employers to hire and fire and a robust level of security for workers. Something along those lines is what’s needed.

What isn’t needed is empty slogans about opening for business, when that’s just code for degrading labour standards. GM can serve as a warning to get it right.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2018/11/30/after-gm-we-need-a-plan-for-the-21st-century-workplace.html

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