Work shapes our lives — housing, happiness, even parents’ ability to give their children a chance at a decent future.
And over the last five decades, work has been getting worse. Canadians have seen basic job security and benefits stripped away, while more and more of us are forced into precarious work.
So why aren’t the campaigning federal parties touting their plans to improve life for the 20.2 million Canadians in the workforce?
Partly, they’re hiding behind a giant con. We’ve been duped into believing “market forces,” as immutable and mysterious as gravity, are responsible for crumbling Canadian job quality (and myriad other ills). Our politicians say we must offer sacrifices — like the quality of our work — to keep the market gods happy, much as Aztec priests demanded human sacrifice to ensure prosperity.
Market forces matter. Raise prices for a product — labour, for example — and businesses will try to react. They might investigate moving work to a country where wages and workplace protections are lower, or invest in automation. They’ll certainly threaten those kinds of changes. (The threats are often empty, in part because those shifts involve other costs.)
A few free-market zealots are against any rules for employers — no minimum wage, no limits on child labour or dangerous work.
But reasonable people recognize that governments have a role in setting work standards and safety regulations and protecting workers’ basic rights, including the right to unionize. The question is balancing the competing interests of employers and workers.
For decades, governments have embraced actions — and inactions — that made work worse.
Take employers’ threat to move jobs to a country where wages are lower and workers have fewer rights. That’s become a much more effective weapon as Canadian governments have embraced free trade agreements that allowed businesses to shift capital and production around the globe.
Workers, however, are trapped behind barriers, unless they are prepared to migrate illegally — which again allows unscrupulous employers to exploit them.
The provinces and territories have primary responsibility for regulating employment. Their policies have played a large role in making work life worse. The evidence is clear, for example, that unions bring higher wages and improved benefits, even in non-union companies hoping to stay that way.
Across Canada, the percentage of workers in unions has been falling without meaningful response from governments. In B.C., for example, the private sector unionization rate fell from 24 per cent in 1997 to 16.7 per cent in 2016.
But the federal government does play a significant role in determining the quality of work life. Governments have decided, for example, to expand the number of temporary foreign workers from 52,000 in 1996 to about 300,000 in recent years. That reduced the need for employers to offer more competitive wages and benefits.
And Ottawa sets the rules for 18,000 federally regulated employers — airlines, banks, telecommunications companies. That’s about 900,000 workers, a large enough group that changes could have significant impact and raise the bar for provincial governments.
That hasn’t happened. The Liberal federal government, for example, has passed changes to increase the rights of those 900,000 workers.
Nothing radical. Employees would gain the right to refuse overtime if they’re caring for a sick family member. Employers would have to post work schedules four days in advance. Moms would have the right to take unpaid breaks to nurse or express milk. People would have a right to eight hours off between shifts and an unpaid 30-minute break after five hours of work.
They were tiny steps, but positive, and set to become effective on Labour Day.
Except the government gave into industry pressure and exempted select companies from the provisions even before they were implemented, the Logic reported.
The mishandled reforms are a good symbol for governments’ failure to stop the erosion of work life, and the resulting increasing inequality in Canada.
So far in this campaign, the parties aren’t offering much in the way of action.
The Green platform talks about a guaranteed income and poverty, but gives little or no attention to work life. The Liberals haven’t released a platform, but their mishandling of the changes to the federal labour code signals a lack of commitment to improving the rights of workers. The Conservatives are still without a platform as well.
The NDP addresses some of the issues, and its promises, if implemented, would help. The party pledges to make it easier for workers in the federally regulated sector to unionize, bring in a $15 minimum wage and improve rights for temporary and contract workers.
But even the New Democrat’s commitments fall short of dramatic action in response to what should be seen as a crisis.
We’ve seen the quality of work worsening year after year. People entering the workforce today face low pay, precarious work and a lack of benefits — like pensions — that their grandparents took for granted.
And the situation, without action, will only worsen as companies like Uber or Skip the Dishes find ways to avoid employment law, and automation claims more and more jobs.
There are just eight weeks until Election Day. Voters should demand real commitments to reverse the destructive decline of work life.