The temporary army that battles for the economy

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Economists often take the economy for an elevator. Are we going up or going down? With the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) arrow recently pointing up, instead of down, you might think the economy is improving. But output (which is what GDP measures) does not matter to people lives as much as employment and its evil twin unemployment.

Unemployment keeps wages from going up and workers from sharing in productivity gains (which have been poor lately), so it hurts all workers. Armine Yalnizyan (CCCPA), Erin Weir (Steelworkers), and Sylvain Schetagne (CLC) have been crunching the employment numbers, and each economist has a cautionary tale to relate.

The reserve army of unemployed Canadians is changing: temporary workers make up a larger component. Yalnizyan has zeroed in on the divide between permanent and temporary workers. Her bar graphs show that precarious employment is on the rise, permanent employment growth cannot be found. In 2009, permanent employment dropped by 2.7 per cent, about five times more than temporary employment (down 0.5 per cent ). From March 2009, which Yalnizyan calculates to be "near the trough of the recession though job losses continued until July 2009," until a year later in March 2010, temporary employment increased by fully 13.3 per cent, while permanent employment went down by 0.6 per cent.

Yalnizyan shows increases for the period spread across temporary employees, whether seasonal, casual, term or contract. As well, her analysis of the jobs data show self-employment to be on the rise: "Over the last year... the self-employed created more jobs than the private sector." These increases occurred especially amongst those self-employed who themselves have no paid employees, Yalnizyan concludes.

Self-employed status confers some tax advantages, and has attractions for contract workers. A significant percentage of self-employment has to considered "disguised" unemployment as well, since many of the self-employed report so little income.

Weir notes that while the number of employed people has gone up, the official unemployment rate has remained stable at 8.2 percent, representing some 1.5 million Canadians. Regional declines in employment occurred in Alberta, B.C., Newfoundland and Labrador, and P.E.I., over the last year. Alberta, the former jobs creation centre of Canada, is approaching near record numbers of unemployed.

"March 2010 was the highest monthly unemployment total on record, with the sole exception of September 1984," Weir points out.

CLC President Ken Georgetti speaking to the CLC jobs analysis wanted to know what was being done to provide for younger workers. Already disproportionately unemployed, they will face competition from students looking for summer employment.

The "real" unemployment rate was 12.4 per cent in March 2010, compared to 8.9 per cent in March 2008, Shetagne, a CLC senior economist, showed in his report. The real rate is obtained by adding part-time workers searching for full-time jobs, and workers out of the labour force because there is no work (so-called discouraged workers) to the officially unemployed. The CLC numbers reveal that it took 12 months (up to March 2009) for the real unemployment rate to climb to 12.4 per cent, and that in the following 12 months up to March 2010 it has shown no improvement.

Making people scrounge for temporary jobs is a strategic policy helpful for companies trying to cut costs. Decent wages, benefits, and pensions are "savings" for the company.

Even the CBC wanted to convert permanent jobs to temporary ones. It met resistance, and so locked out its employees. Our own labour laws facilitate attempts to create a "contingent" labour force. Temporary employment means you wait for someone to decide you are going to have a job, and for how long.

Five years ago, Jim Sinclair, the president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, asked a Labour Day rally for locked-out CBC workers (and striking Telus employees, and Steelworkers) an important question: Are temporary workers supposed to have temporary mortgages, and temporary children as well?

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