The “precariate”: A new demographic for organizing change
Work has changed in Canada. Over half of new jobs created fall into the category of precarious work. Precarious private service and intellectual labour employment has increased as industrial labour in Canada has decreased. With the industrial sector having been heavily unionized, this shift has meant more workers being employed in environments without union protection.
The impacts of this shift have been substantial and have had far-reaching effects, including the rise of inequality and exploitative working conditions. Precarious work echoes workplace discrimination and is often experienced by the most disenfranchised in society – women, racialized workers, new immigrants, and youth – groups who are subtly avoided by those providing more stable employment. And, unfortunately, the problem is getting worse, not better.
The issue for precarious workers is that most of the opportunities being provided to them are dead-end jobs. These workers are often left without adequate parental leave, health benefits, or any semblance of workplace democracy. Contracts or irregular-hour jobs offer little hope of future stability, leave individuals underemployed and, with little warning, unemployed. These factors make unionization difficult. Making matters worse, existing laws and regulations do not offer many protections for these workers, as they were developed without this type of employment in mind.
The response to the rise in the visibility of this inequality has meant that the general population is starting to pay attention to this shift and the struggles of precarious workers. However, like any political struggle, the solutions to these struggles differ depending on ones politics and position within the economy.
Current government lawmakers, who only understand what precarious employment is through reading its definition, seem confused by the scale of the issue and discuss unworkable “solutions”. These include the just paying precarious workers to stop complaining through something like the Ontario Liberal’s unworkable “Basic Income Guarantee”. This perspective views the rise of precarious work as natural and unstoppable, unaware that recent legislative and regulatory changes have been entirely responsible for the rise in precarious work.
On the other side, unions have worked to organize and provide democratic structures for these workers so that they have opportunities for the same protections and representation available to those with more stable employment. Unfortunately, the reality is that, under the legal constraints of current labour law, most precarious workers are explicitly excluded from unionization. This on top of the fact that, historically, unions have had a hard time organizing such workers. Some unions are continuing to experiment with expanding concepts of workplace democracy to the precarious. Unifor’s Community Chapters program, which includes the Canadian Freelance Union, is having success.
Given the problems with current labour laws denying precarious workers the rights afforded to those in more stable employment, organizations like the Workers Action Centre (WAC) have been mobilizing public support for those rights to be expanded and improved. The call for a $15 minimum wage, enforced regular hours, and statutory paid sick leave are the demands to raise the floor. WAC has also worked with unions to demand legal changes to various pieces of legislation that regulates the legal protections for workers and make it easier for those in the private service sectors to organize. This fight has recently gained momentum with a recent endorsement by the Ontario New Democratic Party.
The Urban Worker Project is the latest initiative to join the fight to improve conditions for precarious workers. The project targets areas where the most recent rise in precarious employment have been most pronounced: young and new workers in freelance and contract positions within urban regions. This builds on previous work by co-founder Andrew Cash who, as a Member of Parliament, introduced a private members bill that sought to strike a federal task-force to resolve inequities in taxation and access to social support mechanisms (including employment insurance) for precarious workers. Unfortunately, the bill was opposed and defeated by the Conservatives. The Urban Worker Project seeks to draw further attention to the shortfalls of the current job market. It adds its voice to those who have put forward demands to improve minimum standards and protections for a growing number of workers.
In the end, it is clear precarious workers are in need of organizing support to drive legislation that helps protect the rights and the empowering structures that all workers deserve. This is the direction in which we are heading.