Trudeau government slow to protect gig workers' rights

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Person on bicycle with food delivery case. Image credit: Paolo Feser/Unsplash

People who know this writer know that in a parallel fantasy life he is a jazz musician. In that capacity, he sometimes has gigs -- opportunities to make music for an audience.

In this non-professional player's case, he plays only for fun, and to raise money for good causes -- never for personal monetary benefit.

Real, professional musicians need gigs to feed, clothe and house themselves.

Their professional lives are not easy. They have neither job security nor benefits nor sick days, and working conditions can be stressful.

The word "gig," in the sense of a paying, freelance engagement, comes out of jazz culture, starting in the 1920s. But the word itself is far older. Back in the 13th century it meant a flighty person. At another time, it meant a twirling object, as in whirligig. In more recent times, during the 18th and 19th centuries, it referred to a small, one-horse carriage.

Nobody knows for sure why musicians started calling their freelance jobs gigs. Maybe there was gambling happening at the same venues, or some players travelled to their gigs by one-horse buggy.

Average earnings of $4,303 per year

Today, of course, the gig economy encompasses a lot more than jazz musicians.

It includes technology workers, sales people, health workers, and all kinds of arts and culture producers. It is a rapidly growing economic sector. Year by year the gig portion increases in size relative to the rest of the economy.

The most recent year for which Statistics Canada provides figures is 2016, when gig workers made up over eight per cent of the total Canadian workforce, or about 1.7 million workers. That represented an increase of nearly three per cent over the 2005 figure, when gig workers constituted only 5.5 per cent of the total. 

Gig workers were overwhelmingly poor in 2016. Statistics Canada tells us the median net gig income in 2016 was only $4,303 a year. Workers at the very bottom of the income ladder were "about twice as likely to be involved in gig work as other workers."

Today, the percentage of gig workers is almost certainly higher. The trend has been moving quickly in that direction, and the pandemic has only served to accelerate the movement.

In October 2020, Policy Options, a publication of the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRRP) published a useful overview of the growth of gig work in Canada by Elle Ziegler and Karen McCallum based on an earlier research project they did, with Reyhaneh Noshiravani, for the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum.

The authors point out that we currently lack timely data on the extent and nature of gig work, but add that periods of unemployment, such as the current one, "are often the catalyst for a move into gig work, and there is good reason to believe that an increasing number of Canadians could be considering gig work."

The big myth about gig work is that it is about flexibility and freedom, not exploitation. Companies present it as a perk which workers are supposed to value, Ziegler and McCallum say. But this freedom is largely illusory.

Last year, the food delivery service Foodora pulled out of Canada after its workers won a union certification fight.

Ziegler and McCallum cite the app-driven Foodora business model as an example of how gig employers limit workers' real-life choices.

"Drivers are given options for when to work, but schedules and payment rules restrict and influence their choices," the authors explain. "Choice is largely designed and controlled by the app."

Overall, the Public Policy Forum study and Policy Options article describe how gig workers are ripe for exploitation because they are "decentralized and disaggregated."

Notwithstanding the (mitigated) success of the Foodora union drive, "lack of visibility and reduced lines of accountability make the gig economy difficult to regulate." Gig worker status "poses barriers to unionization and collective bargaining."

The authors conclude: "Gig work presents challenges in terms of accessing benefits, and skills and training opportunities critical for economic recovery."

As for solutions, Ziegler and McCallum propose such innovations as "portable benefits," and "skills programming detached from employers."  

A big role for the federal government

The detached-from-employers part is key.

There is a big role for governments here, both federal and provincial. Provinces are responsible for labour laws governing most workplaces, but the federal government runs the employment insurance system, and has control over overarching human rights legislation.

Given the growing importance of gig work one might have expected to see more about it in the most recent Liberal, so-called feminist budget. After all, a higher proportion of women than men work in the gig economy.

The 2016 Statistics Canada figure for men in the gig economy was a bit over seven per cent; for women it was two points higher, over nine per cent.

The budget does use the phrase "gig economy" (about half a dozen times), probably the first time any federal budget has done so. But, typical of the Trudeau government, this budget's actual actions are less tangible and substantive measures than aspirational and symbolic.  

The budget promises consultations on EI reforms to deal with "systemic gaps exposed by COVID-19." Those gaps include "the need for income support for self-employed and gig workers." 

There is zero immediate action. If we are to see any changes to improve access to employment insurance, we'll only see them following those consultations -- of indeterminate duration. More important, there will be no action for gig workers until "the recovery is fully underway."

For gig workers in federally regulated industries such as transport, banking and communications, the budget promises "changes to improve labour protections."

We'll have to wait for those too. The government promises to "bring forward amendments to the Canada Labour Code to make these new, modernized protections a reality."

When will that happen? The budget does not tell us, but we know Parliament will rise in a matter of weeks for the summer break.

We also know Ottawa is full of feverish talk about a curtailed fall session, to be cut short by an election campaign for which all parties are actively preparing.

In the recent past, when the government has felt the need to act quickly, it has shown it could. The federal civil service put together a plan for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) over a weekend.

That's a good example of working in haste.

A bad example would be the ill-fated decision to precipitously award a multi-million-dollar contract to run a youth volunteering program to the WE organization.

For gig workers, the federal government at least recognizes the need to act, at some time in the future. When it comes to obscene fees charged by the major banks, all the prime minister can offer are thoughts and prayers.

But that's another story.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image credit: Paolo Feser/Unsplash

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