Shining a Light on Precarious Urban Workers
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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.