National Column: A modest blueprint for attacking precarious work

by Thomas Walkom

Precarious work is the scourge of our time. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne promises to do something about it. We shall see what.

Wynne says she’ll base her actions on a wide-ranging report released this week. That Changing Workplaces Review is hardly radical. It makes 173 largely common-sense recommendations to update Ontario’s workplace laws.

It is not clear that it goes far enough.

The problems of precarious work are well-known. Full-time jobs are no longer the norm. Neither is stable employment.

Those entering the labour force 40 years ago had a good shot at unionized jobs with good wages plus reasonable benefits and pensions. Those starting work today can count on none of these.

Instead, modern employees are likely to juggle multiple, part-time, low-wage jobs. Their schedules tend to be impossibly erratic, subject to change at the employer’s whim. Among other things, this limits their ability to search out better jobs

More often than not, they are treated not as employees at all but as self-employed independent contractors who, by Ontario law, are not eligible for vacation pay or overtime.

Employers get an extra bonus from such “independents” in that they need not pay Employment Insurance or Canada Pension Plan premiums on their behalf.

Precarious work makes life chaotic. It also contributes to income inequality.

While the ultimate cause of precarious work lies in the globalized economy, governments can take mitigating measures to ease the pain.

To its credit, the Ontario workplaces review takes a hard look at two such measures – the Employment Standards Act, which sets out the minimum requirement for employers and the Labour Relations Act, which sets out the rules for union bargaining.

To deal with the farce of so-called independent contractors, the report recommends that those allegedly self-employed persons who rely on one firm for their livelihood be granted all employee benefits.

If this recommendation were adopted and enforced, it would go a long way toward protecting workers’ rights.

Some of the report’s recommendations, such as requiring employers to pay equivalent full- and part-time workers the same wage, reflect basic notions of fairness.

The same rationale can be used for the recommendation to phase out provisions of the law that allow lower minimum wages for those who serve alcohol, as well as students under 18.

Other recommendations, such as letting domestics join unions, won’t make any real difference. As the report points out, households employing domestics usually have only one on staff – which makes the right to bargain collectively “in most cases illusory.”

The recommendation that agricultural workers be allowed to unionize promises to be more controversial, even though the report calls for family farms to be exempted.

But there are two key areas in which the report pulls its punches.

One has to do with the crucial area of scheduling. The report accepts that arbitrary, last-minute changes to work schedules can make life unbearable for the precariously employed. But its recommendation in this area is to have panels study the issue sector by sector with an eye to making specific proposals later.

The second has to do with unions. Many economists argue that the sharp drop in unionization has contributed to inequality. The report speaks to this by, for instance, arguing that in cases where employers interfere unfairly in unionization drives the union should be automatically certified.

It also recommends that unions trying to organize franchises such as fast-food outlets be allowed to bargain with all franchise holders in the same geographic area. Right now, a union trying to organize, say, Toronto Tim Hortons workers must do so doughnut shop by doughnut shop.

But tellingly, the report does not recommend that the franchisor (say, Tim Hortons head office) be part of the bargaining.

Indeed, while recognizing that labour laws created in the factory era of the 1930s may not be useful in today’s scattershot world, the report is hesitant to try so-called broader bargaining approaches, saying they are “not practical at this time.”

We shall see what the Wynne government does with all of this. If it is serious about dealing with precarious work, it will at the very least address the problem posed by employers who falsely treat their workers as self-employed contractors.

If it is just looking for cheap headlines, it will do considerably less.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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