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The right response to 'no job is a bad job'

| August 20, 2012
The right response to 'no job is a bad job'

Last May federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said there was no such thing as a bad job. The Law Commission of Ontario may disagree.

This week it put out a report about the rise in vulnerable workers and precarious jobs. Now that he's heard from executives who think Canadians are paid too much, Mr. Flaherty should consider the other side of the story, and the suggested fix.

Most of us rely on our jobs as our main form of economic security, but gradually the market has been shifting away from jobs offering reliable incomes and benefits.

More than 1 in 5 jobs in Ontario (22 per cent) are defined as "precarious" today. Precarious jobs combine low rates of pay with part-time or highly variable hours of work, and no benefits or pensions. If you're a woman, a visible minority, or a recent immigrant, there's considerably more than a one-in-five chance that a precarious job is waiting for you.

Since the recession, four out of five jobs added to the job market in Canada have been temporary or contract work (see attached graph -- will update soon to show year by year change since recession).

Add to that a new federal policy thrust that has dramatically increased temporary foreign work permits for migrant workers, particularly in low skilled job categories. Sadly, some employers have been exploiting the fact that many workers find themselves in no position to complain.

The Law Commission was approached to look into the "bad jobs" file by several organizations urging labour law reforms, including anti-poverty groups (like the Colour of Poverty) and the Ontario Bar Association. That's because working is no longer a guaranteed ticket out of poverty; and in-your-face violations of employment standards and workplace safety legislation are on the rise.

Our laws are designed to guarantee that no job has to be a bad job in a place like Ontario, whether you pick vegetables, serve coffee, clean buildings, provide live-in care or do heavy labour. But the laws are getting bent and broken. These stories are from Ontario, but they are not unique to Ontario.

The Commission heard about migrant farm workers who get injured or sick on the job, but would not take advantage of their entitlement to health care, even when it came to them. They knew they'd get deported if a mobile health unit was seen at the farm gate. More workplace injuries mean higher insurance premiums for the employer.

Both public and private enterprises have been making increasing use of temporary agencies, particularly since the recession. The Commission learned that temporary agencies pay workers on average 40 per cent of what permanent workers make. They learned the industry itself is concerned about clients who are putting temps in the most difficult and dirty jobs to avoid paying higher premiums.

They heard about people getting paid far less than the minimum wage because they're deemed independent contractors, not employees. And, they discovered wage theft, a phenomenon that the Workers' Action Centre has long been dealing with: people get hired to do a job, but don't get paid for the work they've done. Sometimes that happens as a company approaches bankruptcy. Sometimes it's actually part of the business plan of fly-by-night operations. Since the law is rarely enforced, these employers dip into the same strategy again and again, under cover of new business names.

These are lousy situations for the person on the receiving end of these stories. But there are economic and health implications for society as well. If you have no control over your hours of work, you can't plan for child care. Up goes absenteeism. If you don't know how much income you're going to have by the end of the month, it's harder to budget. That often means more reliance on costly credit. If you're a temp, the chances for thorough training or a safe workplace go down. Lower quality control and higher health costs (to the individual and to the health care system) are the result.

The Law Commission has put forth 52 draft recommendations. They range from enforcing the laws we have more effectively, introducing new measures, and making people more aware of their rights.

The truth is, most people don't know anything about their legal rights as workers, and even if you do, it's a difficult system to navigate. Putting aside the costs and serious backlog in the courts, if you don't have a union backing you, you know you'll get fired if you complain. So most people just quit one lousy job and….end up in another.

But that simply emboldens bully employers. So it's really up to the rest of us to become more aware of these situations and talk about them, as this process triggered by the Law Commission of Ontario hopes to do.

They are inviting response and your ideas on how to improve the legislation, or better enforce them. You can check out their website and weigh in with your views by October 1.

That includes you, Mr. Flaherty. Here are 52 made-in-Canada ways to make sure we have fewer bad jobs. Hope you will endorse them, for the sake of the workers in Whitby riding!

This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail's on-line business feature Economy Lab and in the blog Progressive Economics Forum.

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