National Urban Worker Strategy aims to close the precarious gap

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Image: flickr/Julian Partridge

When NDP MP Andrew Cash talks about precarious work, he’s not just talking the talk -- he used to walk the walk. Before turning politician with his election to the House of Commons in 2011, he worked as a journalist and musician in his home riding, Davenport, in Toronto.

"Not only myself, but my dad before me," he explained. "And I spent my working life among precarious workers." It’s why Cash has become a staunch advocate for what he calls urban workers -- those people who work part-time jobs, temporary work and unpaid internships.

On Monday, he released what he hopes will only be the beginning of employment reform in Canada -- the National Urban Worker Strategy, a bill that calls for the federal government to launch a task force that would examine how to extend employment insurance, benefits and pensions to workers who have been traditionally excluded from getting what many full-time workers take for granted.

"We're talking about artists or web designers or taxi drivers," said Cash. "What we’ve got here is an issue that connects many different kinds of workers."

Over the last 40 years, precarious forms of employment have been on the rise, particularly in urban areas. The rate of part-time employees has risen to just over 11 per cent in 2012, from 7.1 per cent in 1976, while self-employed people make up slightly over 15 per cent of Canada’s workforce.

Cash worried that this changing face of employment is having an impact that can be felt throughout all sectors of Canadian society. "When you can’t access a stable full-time job your health suffers, engagement in civil society suffers and ability to care for and nurture your kids suffers," he said.

The Urban Workers Strategy will also target the growing issue of unpaid internships. While it is difficult to track the number of unpaid internships that exist because there is no reliable form of statistics gathered on them, The Toronto Star recently reported that there could be an estimated 300,000 unpaid internships in Ontario alone.

The rules of what constitute a legitimate internship also vary. The federal government and some provinces of have no clear rules governing interns, while others have rules that are not often enforced.

Cash’s bill would require the task force to work with the provinces and other stakeholders to address the uneven application of rules around internships. He hopes better clarity around the internship issue will stop further exploitation of workers while defining what qualifies as a legal internship.

"We're talking about for-profit, large corporations who are taking advantage of sort of a grey zone or a lack of enforcement in the rules around unpaid internships."

Though named for urban workers, Cash says that this issue is one that effects Canadians right across the country, and one that people are speaking up more loudly about. "This is part of what I see as a movement that is beginning to coalesce around this issue," he added. What he’s now looking for is solutions.

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