What could the Government of Canada do to reduce precarious employment and create good jobs?

Liberal MP for Sault Ste. Marie Terry Sheehan has introduced a motion calling on the federal government to develop a definition of precarious employment.

While not a substitute for action to reduce precarity, defining and measuring insecurity at work is a potentially useful step. Insecure, under-paid work is a large and growing concern in Canada. Millions of workers in Canada, amounting to anywhere from one-third to one-half of the workforce, are directly affected by precarious work.

The precariously-employed range from many professionals working in universities, libraries and government, to blue-collar workers in health care, hospitality and construction. Women, young workers, Indigenous people, new Canadians, racialized workers and persons with disabilities are particularly exposed to low-wage and low-quality work.

Precarious work adds up to precarious incomes. Two in 5 Canadians live paycheck to paycheck, and one-third experience fluctuations in income from month to month. Workers in Canada are concerned about making ends meet and being able to save for retirement. Despite a low official rate of unemployment, real wage growth has been sluggish for most workers, with underemployment and the weak bargaining position of many vulnerable workers as one factor behind sluggish wage growth. To make up for stagnant wages, households are borrowing more and taking on more risk.

While automation and technological change gets blamed for job-market insecurity these days, it’s important to remember that government policy decisions in the 1980s and 1990s were instrumental to making work more insecure under the guise of increasing “flexibility.”

So what could a motivated federal government do to reduce precarity and generate decent work?

Accurately measuring precarious work would be an important contribution. Precarity isn’t easy to quantify, but better data will help. In particular, the government should generate better labour-market information on the differential impact of precarious employment on women, Indigenous people, racialized workers and newcomers to Canada, youth, and individuals with disabilities. Beginning to define precarious work in a consistent and comprehensive way would further raise the profile and urgency of combatting precarity, and set a benchmark to measure government efforts to reduce work-related insecurity and vulnerability.

Both as an employer and legislator, the federal government can take immediate steps to reduce precarious employment and promote good jobs in the federal public and private sectors.

It can strengthen labour standards for workers in federally-regulated industries. In particular, it can define “employee” in the Canada Labour Code to include the “solo self-employed” (unincorporated self-employed individuals with no paid help) who are in a position of economic dependence, as recommended by the 2006 Federal Labour Standards Review.

It can go beyond making it illegal to pay workers less simply because they’re part-time or temporary, to prohibiting discrimination in working conditions, and requiring employers to extend the same benefits and overall compensation to workers in precarious jobs. It can protect young workers and new job market entrants from two-tier wage and benefit schemes, as Quebec does. And it can restore a federal minimum wage at the initial rate of $15 an hour.

It can work to remove obstacles to unionization and promote access to collective bargaining. It can reduce the degree of outsourcing and reliance on temporary agency employment in the federal public service.

It can address the particular vulnerability of migrant workers in Canada, especially migrant workers in agricultural and low wage streams of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. It can also move to regularize undocumented workers in Canada, who live and work in precarious circumstances.

It can reverse the long decline in the Employment Insurance program, improve access to Employment Insurance benefits, raise the replacement rate, and extend benefit duration, among other needed improvements.

It can legislate universal social protection programs like Pharmacare and expand eldercare and public pensions. It can invest in women and children by addressing the shortage and high cost of quality, accessible child care, thereby helping to shrink the gender wage gap and the over-representation of women in insecure, non-standard forms of work.

And finally, fiscal and monetary policy-makers can make it a priority to achieve genuinely full employment in Canada. In particular, monetary policy must no longer be designed, in Lars Osberg’s words, around the imperative of reducing to zero any possible risk of excess inflation, regardless of the cost to workers.

Despite the fact that the federal government directly employs or regulates a small fraction of the total Canadian workforce, there’s much that Ottawa can do to set a high standard and improve the quality of work and employment in Canada.


Photo cropped from Wikimedia and licensed under Creative Commons.

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