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Skilled workers in Canada explain what ‘keeps them up at night’

By Steph Wechsler in NewsPolitics | August 21st 2018

Laura Boast says she feels lucky. Earlier this summer, she got the bad news that she was losing her job as a copy editor at Metro Canada in Toronto. But within weeks, she was able to reapply for a similar job and secure a permanent contract with higher wages at a Metroland copy editing centre in Hamilton.

Despite the longer commute, she says she’s happy to be enjoying a workplace among professionals who respect each other, with the backing of a strong union.

“I also realize I could be laid off in eight months.”

Her trepidation seems reasonable. In her 28 years of experience as a journalist, Boast, 53, has been laid off four times — five if you include the time that a woman looking to hire a laid off journalist offered her a job to be her personal assistant and write a blog. Boast was later laid off from that position also.

“I tried to put a brave face on it,” she said, describing when she was let go from a senior research position in her 30s. “I said ‘I’ll be fine,’ but I admit terror.”

Boast isn’t alone. “No Safe Harbour,” a report released Tuesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), shows that years of experience and high levels of education are no bulwark against precarious employment, conditions which have been widely recognized in industries like retail, hospitality, and lately, on-demand services like Uber.

“What you will often hear is, ‘Well it’s the nature of the service industry. It’s the nature of the gig economy. It’s the nature of the share economy,’” explained Ricardo Tranjan, senior researcher at CCPA, who co-authored the report with Trish Hennessey, director of CCPA’s Ontario office.

“So it sort of suggests there’s something intrinsic about those jobs that extends almost inevitably to not really good jobs and (leads to) precarious work conditions. But then you look at very traditional professions and occupations and you find the same phenomena.”

Labour activists say that research about precarious jobs is important at a time when politicians in government regularly make claims about their efforts to create jobs. The activists say this provides an incomplete picture about what is actually happening in the workforce due to dramatic shifts in the economy.

The new report, which aggregated its findings through a nationwide survey and focus groups, found “a surprisingly higher incidence of precarious professionals among workers aged 55 to 64 years and among professionals with more 10 years of work experience.”

It also contradicts what Tranjan described as a long-standing myth — that non-traditionally employed workers prefer those conditions and enjoy the flexibility.

“What’s important to emphasize is that that group exists, but it’s a small group among all professionals,” he said.

According to CCPA’s findings, 43 per cent of precariously employed professionals say “the lack of employment stability keeps them up at night.”

Lack of benefits still plagues precarious work

“No Safe Harbour” builds on the work of Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario, a research partnership that developed the study frameworks used by CCPA. In the partnership’s 2015 study “The Precarity Report,” researchers found that having higher wages was not enough to offset the stress caused by job insecurity for middle income workers.

“That really told us something new that we didn’t know about before,” said Michelynn Laflèche, the vice president of strategy, research and policy at United Way Greater Toronto, who co-authored the report. “The health affects, mental illness, anxiety, not taking days off when you need it, not having those benefits that make you feel secure — it’s about family planning, career planning, the cycle of poor wages and where that brings you.”

The CCPA says that 60 per cent of precariously employed professionals don’t have access to benefits like pension plans or sick days, which ranked among their top concerns.

“The time we’re in, it seems everything and everyone is disposable,” said Winnie Ng, who is currently a distinguished visiting scholar at Ryerson University’s Faculty of Community Services.

She “came out” as an activist in the 1970s, when she was an organizer with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In 2011, she began her term as the Unifor Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy.

Ng says the study seems to reflect similar trends of precarious work in immigrant communities, as was demonstrated in the 2016 report A Public Health Crisis in the Making: The Health Impacts of Precarious Work on Racialized Refugee and Immigrant Women.

Skilled newcomers, mostly women, were chronically underemployed, between unpredictable schedules and taking low-wage jobs.

“I think one of the major challenge has been, not the unemployment but the underemployment, and the undervaluing of their experiences and their education,” said Ng.

The CCPA’s report shows that women are overrepresented among precarious professionals, but co-author Tranjan said they didn’t collect enough data to draw conclusions about other factors such as immigration status or race.

“That has been a really seductive theme,” Ng said of the conception that workers would prefer the flexibly of temporary work, “particularly to women or women who are young parents as well: ‘Oh you can be your own boss, you can work from home.’ And to me I think there’s a whole lack of recognition of work in the workplace and work at home. Again, women are doing their double duties or triple duties without the proper remuneration and recognition.”

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), an umbrella organization of labour unions, has been promoting specific policies to address the problems that plague precarious workers. For example, the labour organization has called for expanded pensions and government-funded pharmacare plans to help workers pay their bills and make ends meet.

Hassan Yussuff, the CLC president, told National Observer in an interview that these sorts of policies could address the pattern of problems, which seem to be on the rise in many areas of the labour market.

“This has been the trend for quite some time,” Yussuff said, “especially for immigrants of colour, that despite having a higher education, quite often they experience unemployment for a much longer period. And there’s nothing that can really explain this other than outright racism and discrimination that they face on a regular basis.”

Employment standards haven’t kept up with a changing economy, he explained, with employers being able to frequently classify workers as “self-employed,” for example, to avoid providing the same benefits they would to for full-time staff.

Gaps in the labour codes were examined in a review by Ontario’s government under former premier Kathleen Wynne, resulting in changes like requiring fairer scheduling and the upcoming minimum wage increase to $15 per hour — a policy win for the widely popular 15 and Fairness campaign.

The wage increase is slated to take effect January 1, 2019.

“There are lots of fairness pieces under the employment standards that we want to make sure actually happens,” said Bhutila Karpoche, the new MPP for Parkdale-High Park in Toronto, who was an author on Ng’s report.

She worked as a factory day labourer for a temp agency in 2002, where she says she saw firsthand the lack of security or protections under law.

“We know that, when it comes to really dealing with precariousness in employment, the best way to do it is if you have collective bargaining rights in the workplace,” she says adding that the Progressive Conservative government’s move to legislating striking contractors at York University back to work undermines their ability to negotiate terms and enables “employers like the big universities that don’t bargain in good faith.”

CCPA’s report showed that the vast majority of unionized workers — 84 per cent — credit better security to their membership to the organization, while noting that unionization has declined overall.

The former Wynne government in Ontario adopted a piece of legislation called the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act. It included new provisions designed to protect workers in today’s labour market, including the minimum wage increase and a new requirement for contract workers to receive the same compensation for the same work as their permanently-employed counterparts.

But the Opposition New Democrats in Ontario have expressed concerns about whether the new employment standards will be enforced, particularly given Premier Doug Ford’s hiring freeze of public sector employees. On Aug. 14, NDP member Jill Andrew – who represents the provincial riding of Toronto—St. Paul’s in the Ontario legislature – presented a petition calling on the legislature to protect gains made in the province’s employment standards and make sure employers are adhering to the new framework.

But even if the new legislation is enforced, policy expert Kiké Roach says the existing provisions don’t go far enough.

“The reality is I don’t think the legislation is keeping up with (how) creative… some employers can be in terms of finding ways to shift definitions of who might be an employee,” said Roach, who currently holds Ng’s former post, now called the Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson.

Roach is a lawyer by trade, whose work has centred around legal frameworks on civil rights issues. While she’s focussed on detention and policing, her work at Ryerson of late has involved conversations surrounding workplace fairness and rights.

“If we’re going to take and spend a lot of taxpayer money on consultations looking at reports and developing evidence about what is actually happening and the negative impacts that trends in employment are having on people, then we have to actually have to honour that investment and honour the evidence itself, and listen to people,” she said.

Legislation has always played a role in progressive societal changes, she explained, whether it’s to curtail segregation, racism or workplace harassment or violence. But the conversations about solutions must involve communities maintaining active discussions, especially considering how ubiquitous the problem of precarious work has proven to be, she said. “It’s really permeating every sector of work and its permeating every age too,” she added.

Stephanie Ross, an associate professor of labour studies at McMaster University, outlined the importance of understanding that precarity touches all labour segments, from low to high skilled workers.

“I think that there’s a personal dimension to this that we need to all come to grips with,” said Ross.

She said the findings from the new CCPA report are important, but also don’t surprise her given what she’s witnessed in the university system. Students go in with the belief that the credentials they’ll achieve will provide a security blanket, one that has not borne out over the last 15 to 20 years, said Ross. And the institutions are invested in this cycle, with employers pressuring government to produce skilled workers, and universities and colleges increasingly relying on student tuition dollars.

“Precarious professionals live with an enormous amount of not just disappointment but I think self-blame,” says Ross. “I think that our society encourages that, and the dominant view that if you don’t make it in the labour market, it’s because you’re deficient, not that the labour market is actually structured in a way that is designed to have a large proportion of people fail. The impact that that has on people, on their sense of self, their confidence, their relationships, their relationships with their partners and their family and their communities is devastating.

“And it’s an enormous waste of human potential.”

Increase access to unionization, says report

Ann Bigelow, for one, is relieved to have some semblance of security after 14 years as a full-time employee at Western University. An accountant with a master’s in public administration, she first took a job at the institution in 2002.

“I was really naive at the time,” she said. “I didn’t understand how academia worked.”

She was hired on a two-year contract and told not to worry — if she performed well she’d have no trouble sticking around. At the end, she was kept on for another five-year contract. And then another.

It wasn’t until 2017 that she was given a “limited term contract,” a type that meant she didn’t have to continually renew, but could still be let go.

“I’m turning 60 — I should be thinking of retirement,” said Bigelow. Instead, she’s just beginning a new chapter of relative stability.

“I love what I do. I’m really good at it. I would be devastated if I couldn’t do it but this trashful feeling of lack of respect has just tainted (the experience).”

“No Safe Harbour” concludes by calling on government at all levels to address solutions and make it easier for employees to unionize.

The solutions, explained Tranjan, aren’t new, so much as a matter of returning to policies for which there’s precedent.

Laflèche said that government and businesses both have critical roles to play in terms of reforming the workplace.

“It’s not the ideal economy and labour market we’d like to see, but it is the one we have,” she said. “It’s the one we’re probably going to have for the foreseeable future, so it’s time to face that and begin to think about what that means for how we support people who are working in this kind of environment and what (that needs) to look like.”

‘They answer to us’

Boast said she “saw the writing on the wall” when she attended a workshop at her job in the Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal in 1995 and was shown a video from the paper’s parent company, which showed a map of newspapers across North America. The dot representing the Journal was “safe,” but as time elapsed, other dots began to disappear.

Despite her layoffs over the following years, she’s still persevering, and has been actively involved with Unifor — a national trade union — for about two years, helping to successfully negotiate for items like improved severance and notice of termination. “Sadly with this state of newspapers right now a big win is to get better severance for people that are getting laid off,” she said.

There have always been forms of precarity throughout history, Boast says, with only brief reprieves over the past hundred years. To hold onto that, communities are going to have to stay engaged.

“You can’t offload responsibility for civil society onto government,” she said.

“We can’t do that because they just answer to us. So we’ve got to keep demanding it. We’re up against a lot, so people in all the precarious professions, in all the precarious industries, have to work together to educate communities and the public — which we’re part of, of which we’re members — about what happens if we don’t fight for these things and to fight for them every single government’s reign.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 11:55 am on Aug. 22, 2018 to include the organization title United Way Greater Toronto, formerly United Way Toronto and York Region.

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