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Shining a Light on Precarious Urban Workers

Half of us now work as freelancers, contracters, and via other non-traditional arrangements. One Toronto MP wants us to start talking seriously about the implications.

If your job situation is less than secure, or consists of several part-time/freelance/contract situations cobbled together, you’re not alone: a recent United Way report found that half of GTA and Hamilton workers lack benefits and job security. Now one Toronto MP, fuelled by his own experiences with precarious employment, is starting a new campaign to provide those workers with steadier economic footing.

Andrew Cash (Davenport, NDP) launched what he is billing as an urban worker strategy Thursday night at The Common, with the goal of highlighting the hardships faced by part-time workers, contractors, temps, freelancers, and interns. Though precarious workers live in all parts of the country, in communities large and small, this is an issue that is especially pressing here: “Almost 50 per cent of Toronto workers can’t find stable, full-time employment,” Cash said, citing the findings of the joint study between United Way Toronto and McMaster University, which found that precarious or insecure work in the GTA and Hamilton has increased by 50 per cent over the past 20 years. “It’s more and more workers in more and more sectors,” he added, and not only the arts and culture jobs often associated with insecure work: many of the jobs that are now contract, temporary, part time, or internships would have been salaried, permanent positions just a few years ago.

One complicating factor in addressing the needs of those with precarious work is that it touches so many facets of an employee’s life, Cash says. Insecure work is sometimes poorly paid and often inconsistent, which makes financial planning difficult. Workers don’t have access to benefits like extended sick leave and may not be able to access EI due to a lack of insurable hours. They lack group health insurance or the option to pay into company pension plans. All of these factors affect how insecure workers contribute to the economy, the United Way report found.

And some workers face the issue of not being paid at all, Cash said, giving the example of employees who complete work on contract or through another arrangement and then are refused payment. It can be time consuming and expensive to recover that withheld pay, Cash said; newcomers to Canada can be at a particular disadvantage in these situations if they don’t speak an official language fluently or aren’t aware of their rights as workers. Young workers also face challenges in the current economy due to the increasing prevalence of part-time work, temporary job, and unpaid internships.

All this poses a challenge for cities like Toronto in another way: insecure workers tend to rely overwhelmingly on urban services like public transit.

As part of the campaign, Cash plans to introduce a private members’ bill in the House of Commons this spring that provides what he described as a “framework” for dealing with the issue of insecure work and urban worker concerns. The bill will include measures to protect workers who have no pensions, don’t qualify for EI, and are working unpaid internships. Cash acknowledges that the bill is just a start to providing this half of the city’s workforce with important measures of security, but he believes it’s important to begin a serious conversation on the issue. “It links workers in a variety of different occupations who wouldn’t normally see that they have a connection,” Cash said of the urban campaign. Cash’s Ontario counterpart, Davenport MPP Jonah Schein, is working on a provincial strategy to address some of these same concerns.


  • OgtheDim

    I agree there is a need for a discussion; but thousands of con-bot bloggers are getting ready to respond with “When I was young, I had to pick myself up by my bootstraps” like language.

    The federal political realm is a toxic sludge pit where getting anything done is subject to a policy discussion more akin to a game of killer grudge match air hockey then debate.

    More likely to see changes at the Provincial level.

    • Testu

      I’m curious what they plan to put in the bill.

      I’m not sure what legislation at the federal or provincial level will do to address some of these issues as they are caused by the employer breaking existing labour and contract laws.

  • Walter Lis

    Another problem with contracting out jobs, is that some may end up be outsourced outside of Canada, as a cost savings. Any work that can be done electronically, can be done in the Far East, like Bangladesh.

  • Students For Jobs Now!

    Looking forward to help sustain this focus on the poor job market beyond the election/news cycle

  • Deleted

    In between my regular contract jobs, I once found myself unable to find a replacement position for about 2months – an unusual occurrence.

    Suffering from a recent break-up, I wasn’t entirely in the best frame of mind and ended up doing some freelance web-design work. My “boss” had sold the site and promised me 30% of the sale.

    I worked my arse off for weeks getting the site ready. Initially without pay and with my own reserve funds dwindling, I requested some payment. He agreed to the first 15% and I continued work..

    I finished the site only to have him nitpick and complain about every little thing and refused paying me the rest of money owed. (I later found out that he still used to the site anyway and was actually paid the entire fee upfront)

    I walked away with a bitter taste in my mouth and one less friend.

  • VSS

    I fully support this move from both MP Andrew Cash and MPP Jonah Scheinn respectively. Having seen my own parents and various others go through contract after contract, or take on unpaid internships for what should obviously be paid work, I think this post-full-employment economy is leaving a lot of people behind who deserve the right to not feel scared sick about whether or not they’ll be able to make the next paycheque.

  • Mr Trainbeans

    Deleted’s story below in particular, and the whole phenomenon in general is instructive. No permanency and no benefits overlie the bigger problem in general; real wages are falling across the board. This is just one facet of the falling rate of profit across the Western world; the idea that we can export all our industries overseas and live high on the hog off a rich and productive service sector was always bankrupt. Companies large and small have to increasingly adopt such arrangements with their workers as to do otherwise would be economic suicide. 150 years on, Marx is still right