The future of work in Ontario is at a crossroads. Will we ensure decent employment for all?

Posted on July 26, 2021 in Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors

As we recover from the worst of the pandemic, it is clear Ontario’s economic rebound is top of mind for the provincial government. It is, after all, the focus of not one but two recently struck governmental bodies. One is an advisory body about the future of work, and the other a task force on women and the economy. COVID has produced so many concerning labour market disruptions that the province is eager to address them — particularly ahead of an election next year.

But economic recovery and workforce competitiveness cannot come at the expense of marginalized workers, whose voices are not often present at policy tables. The pandemic has exposed many long-entrenched social and economic inequities. It will be critical that communities most impacted are not sidelined by recovery efforts.

The rise of precarious employment is a particularly troubling development exposed by COVID. Precarious jobs are, by their nature, insecure: temporary, contract and/or part-time positions with low wages and few benefits. They tend to be concentrated in the care and service economies, feminized sectors which are staffed by a disproportionately large share of racialized women.

When work is unstable, unreliable and not well paid, income insecurity grows, particularly for women. The growing number of working poor is a testament to this. Precariously employed Ontarians have to work longer hours and multiple jobs just to make ends meet. The proliferation of online shopping warehouses and delivery apps has only exacerbated the problem.

In many cities across Ontario, working a full-time minimum wage job does not cover market rent. A minimum wage worker in Toronto would have to work a 79-hour week for a one-bedroom apartment. Decades of chronic underinvestment in housing has contributed to long wait-lists for social housing — almost 80,000 people are waiting for a subsidized spot in Toronto alone. The lack of affordable housing (and child care!) has served as a knotty employment barrier, pushing current and potential workers out of the workforce altogether.

As the advisory panel and the task force consider the future of our economy, it will be important to keep the rights of marginalized workers front and centre in all recommendations. We face two distinct paths; one leads to improved labour standards and the economic empowerment of women. The other encourages precarious employment and, frankly, the exploitation of women, racialized and newcomer community members.

Will future competitiveness come at the expense of those who contribute to our economy — relegated to the status of contractors and subcontractors, gig workers or other low-income front-line workers? Or will the government ensure decent work for all? A tangible choice needs to be made at this historic crossroads.

At YWCA Toronto, we have recommended strengthening labour standards by improving the Employment Standards Act and other labour laws to ensure everyone, including gig and migrant workers, are protected. There must be no separate category of employee or worker with lesser rights. To do so would be to legislatively incentivize substandard wages and working conditions.

We believe decent work is the key to creating a healthy workforce where principles of dignity, equity and inclusion reign. Updating labour standards to reflect decent work means investing in a minimum wage that reflects a living wage, legislating adequate paid sick days and ensuring an easy path to permanent residency for migrant workers. It also means addressing the stubborn gender and racial wage gaps by enforcing and expanding pay equity laws.

The government has indicated the temporary wage enhancement for personal support workers will be made permanent, which is great news. It should also be expanded to include front-line housing, shelter and child-care staff — all of whom are inadequately compensated for their essential labour. Prioritizing investment in the non-profit sector — a feminized workforce that employs more than 800,000 women across Ontario — would also be a sensible policy decision, given more than half of non-profits reported significant revenue loss in a recent sector-wide survey.

The pandemic has proved just how much we rely upon workers on the periphery of our labour market — community members whose economic rights have eroded for far too long. Ultimately, it will be difficult to achieve gender or racial equity as long as we devalue the labour of feminized industries. The moment for progressive public policy is now.

Jasmine Ramze Rezaee is the director of advocacy and communications at YWCA Toronto.

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