Part-time economy: Full-time solution?

Posted on March 16, 2013 in Debates – opinion/commentary – Unionization of part-time workers helps to narrow income inequality.
Mar 15 2013. By: Tom Baker

New McMaster University-United Way research shows half of Toronto-area employees do not have steady full-time jobs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that almost half of American workers less than 25 years old are now part-timers. Last month, more than 1,700 workers applied for eight, mostly part-time, Nottingham, U.K., coffee barista positions. For better or worse, part-time work is going global.

Working as a pay-equity specialist for Canada’s largest union, I see first-hand how part-time work is reshaping the labour market and society, including employment insurance coverage, child care access and retirement security. Today one-third of our members work part-time. That is a 57-per-cent increase in part-time members over one decade. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says the poverty rate for part-time workers is twice that of full-timers. In fact, part-time workers make up a “large share” of low-wage earners in many countries. But there are important national differences.

In the U.K., part-time jobs include 25 per cent of the workforce. Part-timers in Canada account for almost 20 per cent of workers. In the U.S., fewer than 13 per cent work part-time by OECD standards.

Still, the incidence of low pay is highest in the U.S., according to the OECD, with 25 per cent of its workforce working for low wages. In Canada and the U.K., about 20 per cent of workers get poor pay. Could the difference be that more than 30 per cent of workers are covered by union contracts in the U.K. and Canada compared with 12.5 per cent in the U.S.?

The influence of what economists call “wage-setting institutions” like unions might also explain why the distribution of income is more egalitarian in Canada, according to OECD statistics. Even with taxes and transfers from the government factored in, there is less inequality in Canada compared with other economies with similar political histories and market economies.

A closer look at part-time unionization is revealing. Only about 6 per cent of part-timers are union members in the U.S. In Canada, 25 per cent of part-timers are unionized. The U.K. figure is about 20 per cent.

Women make up a significant majority of part-time workers in Canada, the U.S. and U.K. They also make up about two-thirds of low-wage workers.

Yet there is a striking difference in the incidence of low pay for women workers in Canada compared with the U.S. and U.K. In Canada, about 20 per cent of women workers are low-wage. The figure is close to 30 per cent in the U.S. and 27 per cent in the U.K.

In North America and the U.K., union coverage cuts the gender pay gap in half. So the relatively lower share of poorly paid women workers in Canada may be connected to the rising union share of women workers here. Without the 21st century surge in union coverage among women workers the labour movement in Canada would probably be DOA.

Between 1997 and the end of 2012 the number of workers in Canada with union coverage increased 24 per cent. However, just considering women workers during the same period shows a 41 per cent increase in unionization. A comparison with declining union density rates for women workers in the U.K. and U.S. increases the contrast even more.

Union density for women in the U.S. barely budged between 2000 (11.4 per cent) and 2011 (11.2 per cent). In the U.K. union density for women has stagnated near its 2000 rate of 29.1 per cent. In 2011 the U.K. union membership share of women workers is still running at 28.7 per cent. Bucking the trend Canadian union membership for women as a share of all women employees increased from 29.2 per cent in 2000 to 31.1 per cent in 2011.

The Walmart economy is sometimes blamed for the spread of “McJobs.” In reality, low pay is the villain. Canada’s union advantage could prove to be a practical model for globalization with a human face.

Tom Baker is job evaluation representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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