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The employment deal is changing

If too many workers are left out, it raises some difficult questions

By Todd Humber

I’m no expert at reading the tea leaves, but one thing is becoming clear: The employment deal for many workers is changing, more often than not in a negative way, and that could have significant societal ramifications.

That’s a broad statement. I get it — and I don’t mean to hit the panic button. But there are some ripples of discontent that are becoming very obvious, and it raises serious questions about what our society is going to look like in the coming decades.

We’ve all seen the headlines: The middle class is disappearing, the wealthiest one per cent are getting richer — the income gap between rich and poor is accelerating.

The cover of the Toronto Star yesterday featured this headline: “’Wild West’ scheduling holds millions of Ontario workers hostage.” The gist of the story was the rising number of workers in precarious jobs who simply don’t know their work schedules in advance — many of them low-wage workers who often find out an hour before their shift they either have to come in, or perhaps the shift has been cancelled. It makes life difficult.

Ontario is in the early stages of reviewing its employment standards legislation, with a final report due in the summer of 2016. Expect plenty of heated debate from employees and employers on that one. But governments can only do so much. Make the regulations too onerous, and employers will simply close up shop and move to a cheaper jurisdiction with more lenient labour laws.

It happens all the time — with downsizing and outsourcing continuing unabated. It used to make big news, but now it’s mostly yawner coverage buried in the business pages that may move a stock price up or down slightly. Companies used to shed workers when they were in financial trouble. Now, we see healthy, profitable organizations trimming the fat on a regular basis.

Just look at the banks — and Canadians have a legendary love-hate relationship with their big banks. We’re grateful (even boastful) that they weathered the financial crisis, but scratch our heads when they announce massive quarterly profits while at the same time cutting jobs.

It makes one wonder: Where are we all going to work? (And perhaps it won’t be long before we see some experiments on the guaranteed minimum income front.)

Young workers continue to struggle to find employment. I thought the job market was tough when I entered the workforce in 1996 — and it was. But it’s nothing compared to what young workers are facing today. So many entry level gigs have been permanently outsourced that they have to beg and claw and fight to get by.

As I outlined last time in my column about Jian Ghoemshi, it means that young workers are often in precarious work and loathe to rock the boat for fear of losing their jobs. That’s not a recipe for a healthy workplace, let alone an incubator for innovation — something Canadians firms dearly need.

In the United States, former Hewlett Packard president Carly Fiorina has announced she’s running for president. Her team neglected to register the domain, so someone else did. Check it out. It reads:

“Carly Fiorina failed to register this domain. So I’m using it to tell you how many people she laid off at Hewlett-Packard. It was this many:”

It then lists 30,000 sad faces.

If you scroll all the way to the bottom — and it takes a lot of scrolling effort to go through 30,000 sad faces — it ends with this:

“That’s 30,000 people she laid off. People with families. And what does she say she would have done differently?”

“I would have done them all faster.” — Carly Fiorina.

So, a couple of lessons there. One, if your name is a brand or if you have political aspirations, you’d better register all the domains. But second, and it’s a more salient point to this column, is ouch. That’s going to resonate with voters.

It’s just another sign of how fed up people are with the constant trend of downsizing, outsourcing and doing more with less while corporations continue to compile profit.

They’re sick of watching their children not being able to find permanent jobs, with benefits, pensions and decent pay.

We all know what happens when young people have too much time on their hands. That boredom and frustration is eventually going to boil over. If there’s no hope on the horizon, things have the potential to get ugly.

I don’t want to overstate what’s going on. I don’t expect to see job riots in the streets of Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal any time soon. As a society, we are — for the most part — OK. But if the quality of life is continually chipped away, if we lose a generation of workers because they can’t participate in the economy, then we may have a very serious problem.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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