‘Precarious work’ overstated: Employer group

Says evidence-based workplace modernization needed in Ontario
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/06/2016

There has been plenty of talk  lately about the rise of contingent or “precarious work,” with concerns many workers are being forced to take part-time, contract or self-employed work because of an uncertain economy and the changing workplace.

But those concerns are overstated, according to Keep Ontario Working (KOW), a group of employer groups in Ontario that recently submitted recommendations to the special advisors of the provincial government’s Changing Workplaces Review. The review is looking into updating the province’s Employment Standards Act and Labour Relations Act.

“This whole narrative of government seeking to address precarity in work is one that I think, at the very least, has a lot of holes in it and it’s very questionable,” said Karl Baldauf, vice-president of policy and government relations at the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

“What we’re saying is before you try to address the problems, the government needs to understand how broad this problem is.”

For example, part-time jobs accounted for 18.8 per cent of all jobs in Ontario in 2015, compared to 19.5 per cent after the 1992 recession, according to Philip Cross, executive fellow at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, who was commissioned by KOW to analyze labour market data.

And although 50.4 per cent of employed youths work part-time these days — double the rate in 1976 — most of this shift occurred in the 1980s and 1990s when the share reached 48 per cent.

Similarly, self-employed people represented 15.7 per cent of all jobs in 2015, compared to 16.1 per cent in 1997. And while the share of temporary jobs in the labour force has increased from 7.8 per cent in 1997 to 10.8 per cent in 2015, this figure has flat-lined, after reaching 10.9 per cent before the recession of 2008.

At 372,000, multiple jobholders represent 5.4 per cent of the labour force in Ontario, according to Cross’ report, while job tenure has increased — at no time in Ontario’s recent history have employees enjoyed such stable employment: The average worker has worked for the same employer for a record 106.3 months (or nearly nine years).

The share of part-time, contract, temporary or self-employed workers has not increased significantly, and the vast majority of people in those jobs do so voluntarily, not for lack of other options, said Cross, citing Statistics Canada findings.

Almost all students and many older workers only want part-time work, he said.

“You kind of go, ‘Why are people talking about this now?’ And I think some of it is because the labour market in the U.S. really did take a beating in the last recession. The last recession in 2008-2009 was extremely traumatic for Americans: 10 million people lost their homes; 8.5 million people lost their jobs — that’s a catastrophe. And they did have a sharper increase in unemployment, they’ve had more long-term unemployment, they’ve had more precarious work. And we’re kind of exposed to all that language coming from the U.S., and we kind of say, ‘Oh, yeah, sure, that makes sense, I guess that’s what’s happening here.’ But, no, if you look at the facts of what’s happening in Canada, we didn’t have anywhere near the trauma in 2008-2009 that Americans did.”

That’s not to say the issue of precarious work is not important, said Cross.

“There is precarious work out there, no doubt about it. There are heads of households, age 35 years old, who lost their full-time jobs in the last recession and haven’t been able to get anything more than part-time work, and that’s a shame — but they’re a minority. So it’s just a matter of keeping this in perspective.”

It’s about taking the opportunity to step back and better understand the issue of non-standard work and whether there’s been a growth of precariousness in this province, said Baldauf of KOW, which is comprised of several employer bodies including the Canadian Franchise Association, the Tourism Industry Association of Canada and the Association of Canadian Search, Employment and Staffing Services.

“(Cross’) findings seriously questioned the narrative that has been coming from the government in terms of a concern around precarity. While it may be true that work is changing — and we need to point no further than certain companies and certain organizations that are disrupting existing ways of doing work… it would be overstating it to say that work has become more precarious.”

Public sector industries have increased their use of temporary workers from 10.4 per cent in 1997 to 15.8 per cent in 2015, he said. By comparison, private sector use of temporary workers over the same period has only risen from nine per cent to 11.7 per cent, said Baldauf.

“If the government is going to rectify things like temporary work, the organizations that are going to take the biggest hit are actually their own payroll. So they have to ask themselves: What are (we) really hoping to address? And who are the real perpetrators of issues related to what we would deem non-standard work?”

Providing opportunity

The worry is that people’s definition of “precarious” varies from place to place, said Karl Littler, vice-president of public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada in Toronto.

“Not only is part-time (work) critical for our business operations but we provide a multitude of people with opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have because they are unable to work full-time. And within that certainly the student cohort is a big, big piece, but it’s not only that — we have retirees, we have people who are pursuing other vocations in life, whether that’s farmers or people farming or artists, and so on. There’s a pretty long list of people who benefit from the availability of part-time jobs we provide,” he said.

“We see what we provide as providing attachment to the labour force, providing early experience, providing work experiences that compliments study requirements or income supplement requirements… so not only is it not something that should be viewed as an item for concern, we actually see it as a huge benefit to the labour force and to the national labour marketplace.”

While there were the tussles of the 1990s, with the policies of former provincial leaders Bob Rae and Mike Harris, since that point in time, it’s been fairly static, said Littler.

“Unquestionably, the workplace has changed somewhat — certainly there’s lower incidence of unionization than there was, there are evolutions in the benefits side, the nature of work has evolved somewhat, not so much in retail but there’s more capacity for home work, so… we welcome the (government’s) initiative; we just think they need to proceed with a scalpel, not a broad sword.”

Worker advocates and some labour groups have seen this as an opportunity to re-address old issues, he said, and, in some cases, these are being bundled under the precarity driver.

“Some of the things that are being talked of as being precarious work probably are not, but there’s unquestionably some people out there who are dealing with difficult and contract arrangements, and people doing the same work in settings over extended periods who are being treated very differently,” said Littler.

“I can certainly see why the government cares, we just hope as they address areas where they think the balance is out of kilter, that they make sure that they understand the implications.”

There is a trend right across North America around “precarious employees” but restaurants and hotels have always been operating with a foundation of part-time people, said Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA) in Mississauga, Ont.

“Thirty-five per cent of all youth between 15 and 24 work in our industry, and it’s been widely stated by both employers and employees… that it is conducive to meet both parties’ needs. For example, you have students who wanted to work many hours during the summertime and then perhaps on evenings or weekends to make ends meet and gain some income during the school season,” he said.

“The (government) reviewers really do not know the industry — it’s more (using) one lens and a theoretical approach.”

Evidence-based approach

In essence, KOW is calling for evidence-based workplace modernization because of concerns there is insufficient data to support major reforms. There needs to be an annual measure of the cumulative costs of doing business in Ontario, said Baldauf.

“We think that instituting several of the (government’s) recommendations… will add significant costs to business and that could have unintended consequence of course where you’re debilitating businesses from hiring or offering more secure employment than previously. And we’re very concerned about that obviously because we want to do what we can to grow the economy, to enable businesses to be more successful, and to enable them to hire people to become better employers, and to offer more secure work into the future.”

Unless there is real economic analysis conducted, this issue may have a lot of unintended consequences, depending on the solution the special advisors and government gravitate towards, he said.

“What we’re concerned about is this review does not properly capture the economic data that needs to be analyzed in order to rectify any issues the government is seeking to address.”

As an example, if the government brings in one-size-fits-all changes to scheduling provisions, said Baldauf, what kind of research is being done to understand the hit to the economy and specific sectors?

“It’s not just about offering more choice to employees, it’s also about understanding what the impact will be on the business community and what will then be the lost opportunity as it relates to hiring and economic growth? That is not happening, so far as we can see.”

It’s about unintended consequences when people don’t understand the industry, said Elenis.

“There should be (a look at the) economic impact of what some considerations would do, and it should be released at the same time as the report, not after. It’s not fair for the business community.”

SIDEBAR

Recommendations

The Ontario government’s Changing Workplaces Review Special Advisors Interim Report identified 50 issues and 225 options for the Ministry of Labour to consider. Of particular concern are policies that would restrict the flexibility of part-time and contract employees, changes to scheduling provisions, less transparency for the union certification process, and “paperwork provisions” that would add new layers of red tape, said employer group Keep On Working. In response, its report Reform That Works: A Call for Evidence-Based Workplace Law Modernization in Ontario made 28 recommendations that include:

• At least 60 days prior to the introduction of new legislation or legislative amendments, the government should release a detailed economic impact analysis of each recommendation of the special advisors.

• The government should establish a joint business-labour implementation working group as well as sector-specific implementation sub-committees.

• The government should simplify language in the Labour Relations Act, the Employment Standards Act, and associated explanatory documents, to improve employer understanding of compliance requirements.

• Government should enable the Ministry of Labour to increase the effectiveness of its enforcement procedures.

• The Employment Standards Act should be amended so employers are required to pay interest on unpaid wages.

• The government should provide greater clarity and certainty with respect to franchisor’s and franchisee’s distinct employment and labour law liabilities, and make clear franchisors are not considered to be the employer of a franchisee or franchisee’s employee.

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