National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

The November 30 release of labour data from the 2015 Census confirmed that jobs have become much more unstable and precarious as many workers find it very hard to find stable, full-time employment.

Less than one half of even so-called core age Canadians age 25 to 54 (49.8%) now work full time, on a full year basis. For men, that proportion is 56.2%, down a lot from 63.6% in 2005, and for women it is just 43.7%, down from 46.4% in 2005.

The figures show that job growth over the past decade has been heavily tilted to part time and temporary positions, as well as to the more insecure forms of self-employment. While many youth and older persons do seek part-time and temporary employment, most core age Canadians still seek a full-time stable job, and many are unable to find one.

The rise of precarious jobs in the gig economy has eroded a key pillar of income security and well-being, demanding a major re-thinking of our social programs.

Consider pensions. The proportion of workers covered by an employer plan providing defined benefits has shrunk greatly. Fortunately, this has been compensated for to a degree by expanding the Canada Pension Plan and modestly improving Old Age Security benefits and the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

But we have failed to extend public health care to cover drugs and dental services on the unfounded assumption that most working-age Canadians will be covered by an employer plan. In fact, the working poor are often unable to access needed drugs and dental treatment.

As Senator Bernie Sanders recently noted in Toronto, Canada’s Medicare system provides physician and hospital services to all citizens at a very low cost compared to the United States. But we do not provide the comprehensive coverage that was part of the original vision, and which the Senator is pushing for in the United States.

We have also failed to bring in universal disability insurance on the unfounded assumption that workplace plans exist. Many workers are one accident or serious illness away from poverty given the inadequate scope of public disability income supports.

Consider our income security programs which are woefully inadequate to support working age Canadians through periods of unemployment and under employment between temporary jobs.

To access our deeply punitive social assistance system, a person must exhaust almost all savings, and loses benefits dollar for dollar when she or he finds another temporary gig.

Access to Employment Insurance is based on the requirement that a person has worked sufficient hours to qualify, which usually translates into several months of steady, full-time work. Only a minority of the unemployed now qualify for benefits, falling to as low as one third in Toronto.

Benefits of 55% of prior earnings are, in any case, inadequate for low paid and temporary workers who do manage to meet the hours of work requirement.

The federal government is now considering expanding the Working Income Tax Benefit that tops up the incomes of very low paid workers by an average of about $1000 per year. But benefits are paid out on the basis of previous earnings, not in the needed form of a real-time benefit that compensates for periods of unemployment or limited hours of work.

Some progress is being made in terms of responding to the steady rise of precarious jobs. The higher minimum wage of $15 per hour will raise the incomes of employees in usually low paid temporary jobs.

But even here we need to ensure that gig economy workers are covered rather than disqualified on the often specious grounds that they are “independent contractors” and thus not covered by minimum employment standards on wages and hours of work.

Precarious employment has grown to the point that it has moved from the fringes of the world of work to become the dominant model of our times. The ranks of the working poor are growing, and even those in middle income jobs are experiencing much greater insecurity.

Our political leaders, at all levels, must respond and our public policy re-shaped if our social safety net is to be at all relevant in the 21st Century.

Rick Smith is the Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute (www.BroadbentInstitute.ca)

 

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