Robyn Benson, PSAC

Disposable workers: our precarious future

cold canada.jpg

I wish everyone Happy New Year and all the best for 2014.

But it’s a frigid time, in more ways than one. Winnipeg, my old stomping ground, was colder than Mars this week. And too many, there and elsewhere in Canada, are spending these nights outside.

I find myself wondering how many Canadians are only a step or two away from that extreme fate, living as they are on hope and permanently low wages. Unemployment insurance? More than a fifth of unemployed workers fail to qualify for benefits, despite paying into the EI fund for years, as restrictions become tighter and tighter. And the hardest-hit are those who get by on low-wage, no-benefit temporary jobs.

Their number is rising. Is this the future for working Canadians? Half of the workers in Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area live on so-called “precarious employment.” Long-term unemployment is rising. High youth unemployment is now a permanent feature of the economic landscape. Unpaid internships are being used by corporations to grab free labour, boosting their bottom line. The Harper government’s Temporary Foreign Worker program is displacing Canadian workers, despite assurances to the contrary.

Think about what all this means. For your children. For the future they face.

And—since most readers here are public workers—think what it means for you.

You’re already closer to the precarious workforce than you might realize, in your own places of work. Look around.

First there are the “temporary help,” sent over from employment agencies. Not long ago it was reported that one in five of these “temporary workers” stayed on for more than a year. They do not enjoy the wages and benefits of public workers, but their use is increasing: in 2013 they accounted for almost half of all new hires. They mostly work for non-union companies, and are jobbed out to employers on an as-needed basis. In the Public Service, the main stated reasons for hiring temporary workers from outside have been “increased workload” and “staff shortage,” while our members are being laid off. A minority has been able to move on to public service employment, term or permanent, but this number has decreased as overall hiring has dropped: the opportunities for temporary workers to move on to regular PS employment are much more limited now.

These are people like ourselves, with dreams and hopes. Their future is bleak.

Perhaps you—or your nearby workmates—are term employees. This is true precarious work. Thanks to hard bargaining in the past, you get most of the rights and benefits of indeterminate employees under your collective agreement, but no job security. If you make it to three years of such employment in one department or agency, you must be made permanent, so the story goes: but departments can always make exceptions. Your time ceases to accumulate if the powers that be decide that there may be “workforce adjustment situations” in the future (see Section 7.2 of Treasury Board’s Term Employment Policy). Departments have made good use of this loophole.

Or you are one of thousands of indeterminate employees who have recently received an “affected” notice. PS cuts have already had a significant effect on the jobless statistics. Living under the threat of unemployment is stressful, particularly when the government is busy making the whole process as painful as possible. Living with unemployment, of course, is far worse.

No one is saying that our members are heading directly for homelessness, of course. But what we are seeing overall is a set of Conservative policies that seem to be transforming the entire country into one vast pool of cheap, precarious labour. Unions can help turn the tide, but we can’t operate in a vacuum. For all the talk about why unions shouldn’t be getting “political,” we’re up against a government that has no difficulty getting political with us, as one anti-labour bill after another comes roaring down the Harper expressway. Speaking frankly, as I always do, it’s time for labour and our natural social allies—anti-poverty, human rights, environmental and other groups—to pull ourselves together and organize to put an end to all this, once and for all. I look forward to 2014 as a year of opportunity to build that opposition—and I hope you do too.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on January 3, 2014 12:30 PM.

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