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Precarious workers: Government can't ignore its own

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The government of Ontario says it wants to help workers in precarious jobs.

With the launch this year of its "Changing Workplaces Review," the province aims "to improve security and opportunity for those made vulnerable by the structural economic pressures and changes being experienced by Ontarians in 2015."

It's a noble undertaking. These days, "those made vulnerable" are a very large group. Far too many jobs are part-time, temporary jobs with low wages, few benefits and limited job security. Something needs to be done, and government should not be afraid to lead.

So far, the Review has focused on possible changes to the Ontario Labour Relations Act and the Employment Standards Act. For a government running a $8.5-billion deficit, this focus on regulation has an obvious appeal: it opens the door to progress for vulnerable workers at no cost to the provincial treasury. The cost of any positive change for all those cooks, cashiers, janitors and others in precarious work will be borne by their employers, and rightly so.

This approach overlooks an important fact, however: for a growing number of precarious workers, government itself is the employer. So if Queen's Park is actually serious about improving life for precarious workers, it will have to budget for those improvements.

Historically, the public sector in Canada has been the least likely site of precarious employment. With unionization rates above 70 per cent, many public employees have decent wages, benefits, and pension coverage. But the public sector has not been entirely insulated from the intensified market pressures of the free trade era. Two key neoliberal policies -- tax cuts and privatization -- have pushed public sector employers to apply private sector cost-cutting strategies in publicly funded workplaces.

Government-funded employers in Ontario began experimenting with precarious work forms in the 1970s and '80s. A few examples show the breadth of the changes:

  • In Ontario community colleges, full-time faculty and support staff have used collective bargaining to increase wages, build a pension plan, and even control workloads. But for decades, part-time staff were barred, by law, from unionizing. This let colleges create a deep-discount workforce; many part-time faculty now deliver credit courses for less than 10 per cent of the going rate earned by full-timers. Part-timers have no benefits and no job security. These low-cost professionals now outnumber their full-time colleagues.
  • In the early days of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, nearly every job was a full-time permanent job occupied by a man. Then, in the 1970s, the LCBO hired its first part-time cashiers. The scope of these low-wage, no benefit "women's jobs" soon grew to cover all duties performed by store workers. Frontline LCBO staff have experienced the growth of a casual workforce, with vastly inferior wages and working conditions, that is now larger than the full-time workforce.
  • In developmental services, the "deinstitutionalization" of the 1980s moved clients with intellectual disabilities into community service agencies. For the workers serving these clients, this meant job loss, pay cuts, and the creation of a low-paid workforce that is, today, two-thirds part-time. For the workers, that was bad enough, but in recent years, the government has taken another step. With "individualized" funding, families have become employers of their caregivers and are expected to obey the Employment Standards Act and remit deductions like CPP, EI, and income tax to government. This happens rarely, if at all. The provincial government is creating, and funding, an invisible workforce where wages are low and standards are minimal.

There are many more examples of public sector jobs gone bad. And let's not forget all the contracted-out services paid for by government but now delivered by private employers. When it comes to these services, government is no different from any company that aims to dodge union wages for its "non-core" functions by sending work to the lowest bidder. Cost, not job quality, is what matters most.

The ritual punishment of all public employees after recessions is cyclical and -- we hope -- soon coming to an end. But the growth of a precarious public sector workforce is a structural transformation that mirrors what is happening right across the economy. If the current government is serious about helping precarious workers, it can't ignore its own.

Randy Robinson, Political Economist for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, is a participant in the CCPA-Ontario's provincial budget roundtable.

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