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Decent work is getting harder to find in the non-profit sector

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With the federal election demanding so much of our time and energy this fall, many Ontarians may be unaware that the Ontario Ministry of Labour solicited input from the community and business sectors in order to update policy.  Honourable John Murray and Labour lawyer Michael Mitchel were appointed to conduct the Changing Workplaces Review which will release its findings in early 2016. 

Peter Clutterbuck, Senior Community Planning Consultant for the Social Planning Network of Ontario and Dr. Joey Edwardh, Executive Director of Community Development Halton represented the Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO). Their September 10 presentation focused on the challenge of finding decent work within Ontario's non-profit community.

The SPNO is an incorporated non-profit organization with a membership of 20 local and regional social planning and community development councils across Ontario, each with its own extensive network of non-profit and charitable community-based service agencies. The SPNO exists to build and support community capacity not only for purposes of sound community planning but also to develop and strengthen the range and quality of social services and supports to vulnerable populations in Ontario’s communities.

Clutterbuck and Edwardh's presentation highlighted the fact that precarious employment has become standard practice in the not for profit sector and is not only adversely affecting the lives of workers, but also the individuals, families, and communities dependent on these services.

Over 25 per cent of all non-profit organizations in Canada are located in Ontario. These organizations employ almost one million Ontarians or one in six of all employees (2003). Non-profits include institutions like hospitals and universities, as well as the core non-profit sector made up of community-based organizations such as the YMCA, food banks, hospices, assisted community living, sexual assault services, and family counselling services. These agencies serve some of the mostnon marginalized individuals and groups including children, youth and families, seniors, persons with physical and developmental disabilities and serious mental health problems, homeless and inadequately housed people, unemployed and low income people, immigrants and refugees.

In 2003 the rate of temporary vs. permanent employment in the non-profit sector was 31 per cent or almost triple that for the for-profit sector (10.9 per cent). The increase is attributable to temporary employment agencies placing workers in jobs as independent contractors with multiple health and social agencies. These positions pay minimum and low wages without benefits.  Employees work part-time, on-call and short shifts. This means contract workers earn less than permanent staff doing the same work.

Generally, work within the charitable sector is seen as having low value even though it makes significant contributions to the economy.  Non-profits contribute over $100.7 billion to Canada's Gross Domestic Product.  According to Statistics Canada, in 2006 community-based organizations contributed over $35.6 billion to the GDP which was more than the hospitality industry ($29.6 billion), agriculture ($13.6 billion), or motor vehicle manufacturing ($5.9 billion). 

According to Edwardh, "Women tend to dominate the non-profit sector which raises issues of gender wage disparity.  Despite the fact that this sector of the workforce is generally better educated and skilled, the women doing the work are poorly compensated. Precarious employment, low wages, fewer health and retirement benefits all have immediate and long-term economic impacts."

Non-profits often depend on public funds for their core funding.  During the 1980s and 1990s funding for social safety nets was severely cut while demands on services increased. This forced many non-profits to move to project-based funding which is short term and intended to achieve a very specific goal. This type of funding limits the services that can be provided while undermining employee retention.

In order to quantify volunteer hours they are often assigned a monetary value.  This reveals the number of full-time jobs displaced by free labour. When cash is tight and contracts expire volunteers often replace employees. Those employed in the non-profit field often have stories about applying for scarce positions only to be asked to volunteer with the same agency when they don't get hired.

If the goal is to end social inequities then one-off projects need to be replaced by broader goals that build social innovation, civic engagement, and social inclusion.  This requires consistent, on-going funding. Core funding would also enable agencies to increase wages and retain a skilled workforce.

Clutterbuck and Edwardh support an Employment Standards Act that:

  • Ensures the dignity of work and core principles of decent employment for all workers. 
  • Establishes that a worker must be presumed to be an employee, as opposed to an independent contractor, unless the employer demonstrates otherwise.
  • Ensures temp agency workers receive the same wages, benefits, and working conditions as workers doing comparable work.
  • Holds client companies jointly responsible with temp agencies for all rights under the Employment Standards Act, not just wages, overtime, and public holiday pay.
  • Eliminates barriers to client companies hiring temp agency workers directly during the first six months.
  • Prohibits long-term temporary assignments and limit temporary staffing to 20 per cent of a company’s workforce.
  • Establishes and enforces equal pay for work of equal value including benefits.
  • Raises minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2016 and indexes it annually.
  • Increases paid annual vacation time to a minimum three weeks per year.
  • Reduces barriers to unionization for workers in precarious employment.

Non-profit agencies provide the critical services so vital to creating an equitable society. Because of the role they play, non-profit workers deserve special attention. To that end, the SPNO recommended that the Minister of Labour sit down with representatives from both the community services sector and the funding sector to support and promote decent employment practices within community services.

Let's hope this valuable information hasn't fallen on deaf ears.

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