Andrew Cash wonders why there aren't any labour ballads about cashiers. Considering the changing nature of work in this country, the Davenport MP and former musician thinks we need some new tunes to match the times.
On Thursday, Members of the House of Commons had their first opportunity to debate the issue of precarious and freelance labour in Parliament.
Bill C-542, the Urban Workers Strategy Act, was put forward as a private member's bill by Cash in 2013, and has now been submitted for its second reading in the House.
"For the first time, perhaps ever, parliamentarians are going to focus some real attention on the work reality of what I call urban workers," said Cash. "This is a growing sector of workers in our economy that are freelance or self-employed, or working on short-term contracts, holding down multiple jobs, working through temp agencies, and also some who are working for free as unpaid interns."
Cash says that he prefers the term urban workers because it encapsulates a broad spectrum of people, including those who have chosen to freelance, and those who have no choice but who may not necessarily think to identify themselves as precarious workers.
"Their issues are all connected even if they do a variety of different kinds of disparate work," said Cash. "Those issues are a lack of access to any kind of job security, lack of access to a workplace pension, lack of access to extended health benefits or some of the income security measures that other workers can access, like employment insurance, sick leave, and maternity leave."
The bill proposes to strike a task force of federal ministers who would consult with provincial and territorial governments as well as stake holders affected by the bill, such as organized labour. The aim would be to then develop a comprehensive strategy that would grant urban workers greater access to social support mechanisms and basic labour standards.
As an MP from downtown Toronto, these are issues that Cash's constituency is deeply familiar with. A recent McMaster-United Way study shows that almost half of those living in the GTA and Hamilton areas are working with some level of precariousness. The study shows that across demographic and socio-economic lines, and in sectors across the board, job insecurity is on the rise.
As a former freelance musician and writer, Cash has firsthand knowledge of these issues. When his two-year-old son fell ill, he and his partner both lost months of work, falling into serious debt.
"One of the reasons I got into politics was to push this issue up the chain," said Cash.
"I saw how this was affecting everyone: late night office cleaners, taxi drivers, contract professors, artists, cashiers, bartenders, and accountants. It's an issue that transcends the socio-economic silos that we collect in. Because whether you're a blue collar urban worker or a white collar urban worker you are sort of on your own, and I think we need to change that."
Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.