Overcoming the new Precariat: The future of work

September 9, 2015

After years of relative progress in Canada’s labour market – where unionization helped turn jobs like mining and manufacturing into good, middle class jobs – by early-1990s a seismic shift began to unfold.

“Jobs for life” were being replaced with concepts like downsizing, the 1990s word for mass layoffs, and golden handshakes, the euphemism for early retirement, which morphed into “Freedom 55” – the promise that you could be your own consultant and enjoy new work freedom in the golden years.

Young people were told they could expect to have up to five careers in their lifetime (not five short-term contracts to piece together rent). They were told to be flexible, to get educated, and to be prepared to adapt to a new future of work.

Flash forward to today: Canada’s millennials are the most educated cohort in our history, but they’re struggling to attach a solid footing in the labour market and consistently blamed for the barriers they face. They are told there’s a skills gap when, in fact, it’s more a training gap. Canada’s employers used to be better at workplace training, but that’s changed.

We are seeing a new “Precariat”(1) in Ontario; an economy where employment is increasingly low-paying and precarious. The proportion of low-wage workers grew by 94% since 1997(2) outstripping total employment growth. Most low wage workers in Ontario don’t get paid for sick days and don’t have paid vacation. Most don’t have predictable work schedules. This is partly due to growth in retail and service sector jobs. The same goes for care-giving jobs. There is a captive seniors’ care market, for instance, but it is precarious for workers.

Watching this seismic shift unfold in Ontario, one can almost imagine a future dystopia: a servitude bubble where the well-off few are serviced by the desperate masses. And it’s not just service and care workers. It’s also sessional professors at colleges and universities who are also the face of the new Precariat. Education isn’t the golden shield it once was.

Young workers did everything we asked them to: they got an education, they took on student debt, and now with precarious employment their future is questionable; insecure.

It’s in everyone’s best interest for Ontario (and Canada) to do more to help workers of all ages compete in the global knowledge economy.

So what can we do about it? Here’s where I see hope.

There is a growing consensus that employers need to get back into the business of training. The U.S. grassroots $15 minimum wage movement has spilled into Canada.(3) There is a growing wave of living wage initiatives where employers are volunteering to pay their employees a minimum wage that would actually help workers make ends up – because, in every province in Canada, the minimum wage isn’t enough; it keeps workers working poor.

Credit unions in B.C. and Ontario have led the way by becoming living wage employers. In Hamilton, the public school board is now a living wage employer. The City of Vancouver has just committed to do the same and an interim poverty reduction strategy would commit the City of Toronto to that higher standard as well.

And that’s important, because the bottom line is governments at all jurisdictional levels have the power to set the tone and conditions for the labour market. It starts there. And it’s possible.

Fifty years ago there was a federal election, where the main contenders were Lester B. Pearson, John Diefenbaker, and Tommy Douglas. Pearson’s slogan was “Good things happen when government cares about people”. It was visionary. The three most significant platform items were universal public health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and affordable university. Fifty years later we can see that this approach to governance has benefited us all. Government policy that puts people’s well-being first and foremost is not only central to the democratic promise, it’s essential to the future of work in Canada.

Moving forward, it’s time to take up a similar generational challenge to shore up the Precariat by investing in a strong social safety net, good public programs, good jobs, and guaranteed workers’ ability to organize.

(1) Guy Standing. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class 
(2) Sheila Block. A Higher Standard: The case for holding low-wage employers to a higher standard 
(3) Trish Hennessy. $15 minimum-wage movement spills into Canada.


Ontario’s Precariat

Hennessy’s Index is a listing of numbers, written by the CCPA’s Trish Hennessy, about Canada and its place in the world. For other editions, visit: www.policyalternatives.ca/index
That’s the number of workers in Ontario who worked in a minimum wage job in 2014. A full-time, full-year minimum wage earner doesn’t earn enough to rise above Ontario’s poverty line.
That’s the percentage increase of Ontario workers who were working for the minimum wage in 2014 compared to 1997.
That’s the share of Ontario workers who earned the minimum wage in 2014. In 1997, minimum wage earners only represented 2.4 per cent of all workers in Ontario. 
That’s how many more low-wage workers (those earning within $4 of the minimum wage) there were in Ontario in 2014 compared to 1997, outstripping total employment growth, which grew by 30 per cent over that time. 
That’s the share of workers who made within $4 of the minimum wage (making up to $15 in 2014) in Ontario in 2014. In 1997, the share of low-wage workers within this income range only represented 19.8 per cent of the Ontario workforce. 
1.7 million
That’s how many minimum wage and low-wage workers (earning $11-$15) there were in Ontario in 2014. 
That’s how many minimum wage workers in Ontario who are older than 20 years of age. Only 34 per cent of minimum wage workers in Ontario are under 20. 
Six in 10 
That’s how many minimum wage workers in Ontario who face unpredictable hours at their job. For those earning within $4 of the minimum wage ($11-$15), four in 10 low-wage workers deal with the problem of unpredictable hours. 
That’s the shockingly small percentage of minimum wage earners in Ontario who get paid for taking time off work. Only one quarter (24.9 per cent) of low-wage workers get paid for a work absence. 
That’s how many Ontario workers who earn $15 or more get paid for their absence from work – a sharp contrast from low-paying jobs that force workers to take sick leave or vacation time on their own dime. 
One in two 
That’s how many Ontario workers don’t have access to a 40-hour-a-week job (50.5 per cent). That’s up from 42.7 per cent in 1997. 
That’s how few workers in Ontario’s accommodation and food services sector – such as people who serve coffee and clean hotel rooms – who are represented by a union. 
Source for all data points.

Trish Hennessy is the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' (CCPA) Ontario office and part of the team of researchers with the CCPA National office's Growing Gap Project. This piece was originally published at The Pearson Centre.