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Precarious Work Creates A Cycle Of Fear And Instability

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We are very good at imagining a host of fantastical options when it comes to what humanity's future might look like: space travel to distant alien civilizations, artificial intelligence taking over the world, flying cars and robot maids. But when it comes to imagining what our own lives will be like twenty years from now, we tend to think quite linearly.

For Millennials, the expectation that we grew up with is that the shape of our lives would be more or less the same as our parents, with a few extra technological advancements here and there. We were told that if you got an education and worked hard, you would get a good job, get married, buy a house, have kids, raise kids, then retire.

Reality, however, may not be as neatly packaged as we might have imagined.

Just last week, Finance Minister Bill Morneau warned young Canadians that they should get used to what is known as "job churn": short-term employment, with many career changes.

Recent reports seem to be supporting his claims, as more than half of adult workers in the GTA and Hamilton are now in temporary, contract, or part-time positions, and the "quality" of Canadian employment is at a 25-year low.

While economies do tend to go through booms and busts, this trend of precarious employment doesn't seem like it's going away anytime soon. Technological advances in automation and productivity mean that 42% of jobs are at risk of being replaced by automation.

Even though manufacturing outputs and profits have increased, fewer people are needed to produce them.

Meanwhile, job growth has been concentrated in insecure work, even outside of sectors that have typically been part-time or low-paying. In a recent poll, nearly half of respondent companies were planning on using contract, part-time or outsourced labour to fulfill their needs in the next three to five years.

Insecure employment is also spreading to institutions once considered providers of good, stable jobs, such as universities, governments, and hospitals.

Since workers are now considered temporary and disposable by many companies, rather than long-term investments, there tends to be less consideration for creating safe workplaces, instituting good training, and preventing injuries.

A recent employment blitz by the Ministry of Labour found three-quarters of inspected workplaces that hired precarious workers violated the Employment Standards Act.

This attitude of disposability also has huge public health implications. Not knowing whether you're going to be given enough hours to pay the bills or if you'll have a job when your contract is up is an incredibly stressful way to live. Further, you're more than twice as likely to report mental health issues if you are precariously employed.

A lack of paid sick days means the majority of food-service workers report going into work even when they're ill to avoid missing out on pay, which facilitates the spread of disease.

We are seeing this increase in precarious employment reflected in food bank trends. Food bank use remains 14% higher than 2008. The vast majority of food bank clients' incomes are either employment income or some form of social assistance, such as employment insurance, Ontario Works or disability support.

People who work in insecure positions make 46% less than workers in the same field with secure jobs. The working poor often skip meals or choose cheaper, lower-quality food in order to pay other bills, increasing their risk of chronic disease.

It also has long-term effects on Canadian society and our economy. When you're not sure of your long-term economic future, you're more likely to put off getting married and having children, and delay purchasing a house.

If you don't know what your schedule is going to be like two weeks from now because you're working a string of temp jobs, it's difficult to find childcare and commit time to get engaged in your community. There tends to be fewer opportunities for upward mobility, and thus you get stuck in a cycle of poverty.

It's clear that precarious employment is both widespread and damaging to our society. While some of the forces that have created this trend may not go away, we can still create an environment that encourages the creation of stable jobs and protect those who do end up in precarious work.

Many groups have come out with a constellation of solutions to create a system that better serves today's workers. Recommendations include mandated paid sick days, two-week scheduling notice, and parity of benefits, pay and vacation for temporary and contract workers.

Increasing access to parental leave for precarious workers and making childcare more flexible would lessen the burden on parents, and creating more skills and re-training opportunities would prevent a society-wide slip in job skills.

Existing tools to protect workers need to be strengthened, such as increased regulation of temp agencies and improved access to workers' compensation. Currently, the Ministry of Labour's enforcement of labour regulations operates primarily on a complaint basis, putting the onus on the employee, who tend to be in too vulnerable of a position to speak out against their employer or unaware of the rights, such as young people or recent immigrants.

New groups made up of precarious workers are also forming to advocate for their rights. The Urban Workers Project wants to organize independent contractors, self-employed entrepreneurs and part-time employees to fight for better protection. The Canadian Freelance Union provides services typically available through workplaces, such as health benefits, grievance support and contract advice.

We also need to make a strong business case for secure employment. While precarious labour is a way of keeping labour costs down and profits high, it is also short-sighted. These policies result in higher labour turnover, fewer skilled workers due to the lack of on-the-job training, and a smaller pool of talent to move up the ladder.

On a macro scale, this "rise of the precariat" is causing social instability and unrest across the globe - and none of that is good for business.

The Ontario government is currently reviewing the Ontario Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act, and released an Interim Report on its progress back in July. They are expected to produce a report in the next few weeks on proposed changes. They are also examining possible models for a Basic Income Pilot Project, which we've argued before could be an antidote to technological unemployment.

These reforms are important and necessary to protect our workers and deal with the realities of work in this century. They can't come soon enough for people who "have that feeling of fear all the time" and struggle to afford their most basic expenses each month.

To learn more about the Ontario Association of Food Banks and our vision of a hunger-free Ontario, please visit www.oafb.ca.

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