Laws need updating due to rise in non-standard work: Think-tank

Nearly four out of 10 workers are outside the purview of Canadian labour legislation

Nearly four out of 10 Canadians work outside the purview of labour legislation. And most are the low-paid, vulnerable workers the laws were set up to protect, says a left-leaning think-tank in two recent reports.

The number of Canadians working on a part-time, temporary, casual or self-employed basis has been steadily increasing over the past two or three decades. And yet, the terms of standard work — full-time, permanent and salaried work — continue to set the parameters for a majority of labour laws and labour relations legislation, said two reports by academics Richard Chaykowski of Queen’s University and Guylaine Vallée of the University of Montreal, released by the Ottawa-based Canadian Policy Research Network.

“What it boils down to is a recognition that we are passing the economic risks onto people at the bottom of the labour market, people who are low-paid, people who are unrepresented, who are working in non-standard contracts,” said Ron Saunders, director of the work network for the Canadian Policy Research Network and co-ordinator of the research series on vulnerable workers.

The reports’ call for drastic changes to labour policies comes as a number of jurisdictions are looking at the issue. This includes the federal government, which is reviewing part 3 of the Canada Labour Code, as well as Saskatchewan, which created a commission in February to look into measures to improve opportunities for vulnerable workers.

Vallée, author of the two CPRN reports, was also on a three-member commission appointed by Quebec’s previous government to examine measures to protect people in non-standard work. The commission’s recommendations, issued in January 2003, included strengthening regulations for temp agencies and eliminating unequal treatment based solely on employment status. The report has received little attention from Jean Charest’s Liberal government.

Saunders said there are a number of options for policy-makers. They could enforce existing labour laws more rigorously, or they could look at broadening the scope of the current laws to cover part-timers, temp workers, as well as self-employed people who are in a dependent relationship with a single organization, hence, de facto employees of that organization.

Another option is to adopt a universal approach when rolling out policies. Take public health-care coverage, for example. If governments broaden coverage to include items such as catastrophic drug coverage, then it will no longer fall on the employer to provide such benefits, and the disparity between full-time staff with coverage and vulnerable workers without would be removed.

Another option involves broader access to collective representation — if not unions then some form of employee association. Such associations “could become a vehicle for people to improve their employment conditions or even to provide benefit,” said Saunders.

“One could imagine an association that groups people who move from employer to employer, and by grouping them could offer a benefits plan that’s cheaper than what people could get individually.” The current framework for construction unions, in which members move from work site to work site yet remain covered by a benefits plan which they pay into, is an example of such alternative, said Saunders.

Richard Chaykowski’s report which presents a statistical profile of Canadian workers cites figures showing full-time, permanent jobs dropping from 67 per cent of all work in 1989 to 63 per cent in 2002. Among men, this fall is less marked — from 71 per cent to 66 per cent — compared to the decline of standard work among women, from 63 per cent to 59 per cent.

This decline has been coupled with an increase in the proportion of temp workers.

Saunders said he’s seeing a “fair bit of interest” in different jurisdictions on the issue. “But it’s not easy to find solutions that are politically sustainable given how polarized the stakeholders tend to be on these things.”

At the Toronto-based, right-of-centre C. D. Howe Institute, senior policy analyst Finn Poschmann said he’s not convinced there is a problem to address. “It’s not that obvious a conclusion that the structure of the economy really is changing in the direction of non-standard work. Nor is it obvious that if it is, this is bad for the economy or bad for everyone involved,” said Poschmann.

“People make these choices in their capacities as employers or in their capacities as employees because it’s working out well for them or it’s the best choice among a range of choices.”

And if employers are interested in non-standard employment relationships, it’s as a response to the level of regulation making it difficult for workers and employers to come to their own work arrangements, he added.

“If I’m concerned about job instability or vulnerability, the last thing I would want to do is to pursue a policy that makes it harder to negotiate individual’s relationships with employers. Because that’s part of the problem.”

While Poschmann doesn’t know what issues will be addressed in the review of part 3 of the Canada Labour Code, he said he’s concerned with the direction of legislative change at the provincial level, notably changes in Ontario and Saskatchewan that “ease the way for unionization.”

Referring to the review of the Canada Labour Code, André Piché of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said he welcomes any initiative to update the labour standards, which were drafted some 40 years ago. “But we have to be careful about how we do it. Because if we make it more rigid than it is now, we may hurt ourselves in terms of job growth in the future,” said Piché, the CFIB’s director of national affairs.

Whereas small- and medium-sized businesses represented a quarter of Canada’s gross domestic product 25 years ago, the sector now accounts for 43 per cent of the GDP, he added.

Saunders notes that most of the measures proposed in the two reports would be hard for employers to support.

The exceptions may be calls for the current labour legislation to be more rigorously enforced.

“Obtaining real compliance with existing laws would not be something that most employers would argue against. In fact, many would welcome it because they don’t want to be undercut by people who aren’t complying,” said Saunders.

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