How do you fix Canada’s labour instability trap?

Anna Mehler Paperny – Global News, June 15, 2015

Across parties and levels of government, politicians are scrambling to reshape 20th-century labour policies to fit a 21st-century workforce.

Increasingly, a Global News investigation has shown, Canadians are finding themselves in an instability trap: More are working part-time or temp jobs when they’d rather work full-time, participation rates have reached historic lows, and an uneven Employment Insurance system penalizes those who need it most frequently. Many find themselves forced to choose between work and benefits, or child care.

READ MORE: Canada’s instability trap

Consultations began Monday at Toronto’s Mariott Hotel into ways Ontario can modernize its labour legislation to better reflect a changing workforce. The province is in the midst of an 18-month review of the Labour Relations and Employment Standards Act, with a mandate to explore how better to support workers in an environment where employer training and benefits are no longer the norm, women still earn less than men and worker vulnerability is prevalent.

Meanwhile, all three federal political parties are preparing to make their pitch this fall to a swiftly changing workforce.

Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre has touted his government’s post-recession job-creation record. On Monday afternoon an e-mailed statement attributed to Poilievre attacked opposition proposals to reform employment insurance.

“Liberals, New Democrats and union lobbyists support massive  tax increases on workers and small businesses to fund a 45-day work-year,” the e-mail reads. “One of their proposals is for people to work only 45 days and collect EI for the rest of the year.‎ The billions of dollars in new job-killing taxes required to fund such schemes would force small businesses to lay people off and would take money out of the pockets of workers. Conservatives oppose such risky new taxes.”

The Liberals and NDP, meanwhile, have called the Tories out of touch with Canadian families’ economic reality.

“Our labour policies are sort of predicated on that postwar reality of work, where you left school and got a job… for your entire working career. And you made enough money you could raise a family and maybe buy a house. As you know, that is a distant dream for most workers, and in particular young workers,” said NDP MP Andrew Cash, whose bill calling for a national “Urban Workers Strategy” was up for second reading in the House of Commons last month.

“The melee that ensued in the economic meltdown of 2008 created a climate where jobs became more and more precarious, more and more temporary,” Cash said.

“It’s a reality that’s concerning not just to workers, not just to young people who are trying to build a career, but also the parents of young adults who are seeing that their oftentimes educated adult children, the opportunities are just not there.”

“The payment of EI benefits is not based on the specific needs or circumstances of a claimant, as it is the income from employment that is insured under the EI program.  To base benefits on the individual circumstances of claimants would alter the insurance nature of the program,” Employment and Social Development spokesperson Pierre Nolet said in an email.

“Changes have been introduced to make the EI program more responsive, fair, and flexible while continuing to support Canadians when they need it most.”

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Figures indicate more than half of Canadians are “asset poor” — they lack sufficient liquid savings to keep them afloat for three months without a paycheque. Critics have charged that requiring people to spend all their savings before they qualify for social assistance makes it tougher for people to get back on their feet.

The federal government launched a “National Strategy for Financial Literacy” last week, calling on Canadians to “gain the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to make good financial decisions.”

But in many cases what’s hurting Canadians isn’t lack of knowledge but lack of choices — or, more bluntly, lack of cash. Even as fewer people than ever are on employer pensions in the private sector, the number of Canadians cashing out their RRSPs early despite the financial penalties has increased since the recession, statistics obtained by Global News reveal.

RRSP-Withdrawals

Even as Ontario set out to establish its own public pension, the federal Conservatives reversed course, saying last month they did indeed support expanding CPP.

Ontario’s provincial government, in the meantime, is in the midst of a workplace safety blitz, targeting companies most likely to be employing “vulnerable” or “precarious” workers — young people, temporary and part-time and contract workers, temporary foreign workers.

The blitz is supposed to last through July. An Ontario Labour Ministry spokesperson said it won’t have stats on how many violations it found, and what actions the province took, until this fall.

The province has also announced about $2.7 million for research projects aimed at better understanding a shifting labour market and ensuring workers are safe even if their jobs are less secure.

This includes skills gaps in health and safety, employer investments in training and safety precautions and injuries among younger workers.

One study is trying to address an old problem in a new way: Close to half of working-age Canadians fall short when it comes to literacy and numeracy, but few are willing to admit it, says Institute of Work & Health senior scientist Ron Saunders.

“People are sometimes nervous about participating in workplace literacy programs because there’s a stigma,” he said. So Saunders is leading a study seeking to sneak literacy and numeracy skills into a crane riggers’ safety course. The hypothesis is that this would improve not only basic skills but also the workers’ application of the safety precautions.

“You’re sort of teaching the skill to work with the information, not just providing information.”

As the province takes a closer look at its labour laws, workers’ rights advocates have argued government can take a stronger hand in providing more stability for people stuck in precarious work. McMaster University’s Wayne Lewchuk has found that has an impact not just on individuals but on their families and communities, as well: It’s tough to volunteer at a community centre or attend parent-teacher meetings when you’re going from one shift to another.

 

Cash said he wants to explore lowering the barriers to Employment Insurance, expanding health care to include dental care and drug coverage once included in mainstream employer benefits packages, and even the possibility of reforming the tax system to smooth out uneven incomes of people who hop from one gig to another.

Would an NDP government commit to implementing any of these? Cash wouldn’t say. But he does think this will be a big issue in this fall’s election.

“What we need to do is bring our labour laws and labour policies into the 21st century so they reflect the reality of work today,” he said.

“It’s one of the reasons I got into politics. This is going to be part of the debate in this election — how we build a stronger floor.”

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