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How do you solve a problem like precarious work?

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Image: Steve Snodgrass/flickr

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has taken quite a bit of heat for his tone deaf comments about the reality of precarious work, specifically saying that we should just "get used to job churn." His policy prescription, an improved social safety net, is actually a valid part of the solution. But must we accept that the precarious will always be with us? That is, what can government actually do to address precarious work?

First of all, has the Finance Minister accurately understood the issue? There is a great deal of hubbub about precarious work; can it be reduced to simply "job churn"?

Hmm, apparently not. The average duration of a job has been remarkably stable since 1976, even for young workers. The distribution is pretty stable too, and aside from the obvious impact of recessions, there is no clear upward trend in short term jobs.

This is because for many workers, precarity doesn't mean jumping from job to job -- it means not knowing how many hours you can count on next week, it means not having any benefits, it means balancing multiple jobs along with caretaking duties and/or furthering your own education. It means working for the same employer for five years, but always on six-month contracts. It means unpaid internships are the only kind of internship you can find, or not having any recourse when an employer unjustifiably docks your wages or takes your tips for themselves.

Of course there has been an increase in own-account self-employment (has no paid help, but may be incorporated or unincorporated), and contract workers wouldn't show up in the data on job duration. But the trend in own-account self-employment is most pronounced for workers 25-54.

Our labour statistics don't do a good job of measuring precarity -- but some indications:

  • Nearly 2 million workers are "own-account self-employed," meaning they have no paid help;
  • About 900K work part time because they can't find full time work;
  • Another 390K work part time to accommodate unpaid care work;
  • About 1 million have a second or third job.

So, now that we have a better understanding of the problem, what tool(s) does the federal government have at its disposal to address labour market precarity for younger and older workers, now and into the future?

The federal government can try to spur economic growth. The current government is doing that through investment in infrastructure (watch out for privatization schemes here), and investment in green jobs and clean tech.

But the economy has been growing over the past 25 years, when we've seen growing precarity in the labour market -- so that's clearly not sufficient. I would advise the economic council to take a look at Senator Bellemare's work on full employment, and Professor Marc Lavoie's work on wage-led growth. It might lead them in a policy direction that will benefit both growth and well-being.

For example, transfers such as the Canada Child Benefit will help to reduce poverty and inequality. Expanding the Working Income Tax Benefit would help make work pay, and make life a little easier for the working poor.

Expanding the social safety net by improving CPP will help down the road, and it absolutely reduces the stress of precarity when workers know they will have that pension when they retire.

The current design of Employment Insurance amplifies and exacerbates labour market inequalities, and ideally a social insurance system would work to dampen existing inequalities. A lower entrance requirement and minimum benefit level would go a long way to doing that.

The federal government could use Labour Market Development Agreements (LMDAs) with the provinces to provide more opportunities for training and re-training -- and better supports for non-EI eligible workers who need access to basic numeracy and literacy training through Labour Market Agreements (LMAs).

High-quality public services and social services are critical. I cannot overstate the need for more affordable child-care spaces in Canada, and the beneficial impact this would have on precarious workers.

But it's not all about the federal government, since the provinces legislate employment standards for about 90 per cent of workers in Canada. We're hearing lots about $15 and Fairness, because that's where the issue is for many precarious workers. Higher minimum wages, access to paid sick leave, the ability to certify a union in one step instead of two-stages (leaving workers open to retaliation and intimidation from employers), anti-scab legislation, and most importantly, proactive employment standards enforcement, like Manitoba has.

(Instead of relying on complaints from affected workers, Manitoba has a Special Investigations Unit that monitors the employers of vulnerable workers. According to their website, in 2014-2015 almost half of their investigations were the result of information received from the public and the Unit identified violations in 80 per cent of these cases.)

So what can government do to address precarious employment? A whole lot, it turns out.

Image: Steve Snodgrass/flickr

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