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A new class: Canada neglects the precariat at its peril

Guy Standing, a professor of economics and development studies at the University of London, is author of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (2011) and A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens (2014).

There is a new class whose voice will soon be at the centre of Canadian life. It is the precariat, the growing mass of Canadians who are in precarious work, precarious housing and hold precarious citizenship: the perpetual part-timers, the minimum-wagers, the temporary foreign workers, the grey-market domestics paid in cash, the young Canadians who will never have secure employment, the techno-impoverished whose piecemeal work has no office and no end, the seniors who struggle with dwindling benefits, the indigenous people who are kept outside, the single mothers without support, the cash labourers who have no savings, the generation for whom a pension and a retirement is neither available nor desired.

While Canada's three major political parties are all aiming their bids for October's election at the idea of a middle class, they ignore this new class. Their neglect is producing a fragmented society in which the old middle class dwindles; an elite, well-employed "salariat" quietly thrives; a plutocracy smiles; and the precariat takes shape in anxiety, alienation and anger.

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The precariat consists of millions of people struggling to come to terms with lives of unstable labour and unstable living, lacking an occupational identity or career. They rely on money wages, which are stagnant and volatile, putting them in constant fear of unsustainable debt. The politicians have ignored the precariat, which may account for 40 per cent of the adult population in Canada. In some countries, it is more; it is growing everywhere.

Unless politicians can understand what is happening, their support base will continue to shrink, amid declining voting in elections. That will be shown in October.

There is little evidence that the Conservatives, Liberals or New Democrats understand the precariat's needs or aspirations. Globally, a similar failure has resulted in a fracturing of political parties, and new populist movements. Canadian politicians should realize that they are at a crucial juncture.

Governments have turned the welfare state into a messy, terrifyingly complex web of tax credits, means-tested benefits, punitive assessment tests and coercive workfare. The precariat must wrestle with all this. The politicians have not cared, as long as that does not reach and alienate their middle class. But they are finding it harder to do so, as the precariat grows.

It is not just that low-paying insecure jobs are displacing full-time regular jobs. The precariat faces a worse form of insecurity than unstable labour and non-entitlement to non-wage benefits. If they had income security, many would accept insecure jobs. After all, most of the jobs they can obtain are hardly attractive.

Most importantly, the precariat has been losing citizenship rights – civil, cultural, political, social and economic. As such, they are becoming supplicants: They must ask for favours and benefits, satisfy bureaucrats and depend on discretionary decisions that subject them to discomfort, indignity and even homelessness.

There has been a systematic dismantlement of institutions and mechanisms of social solidarity, time-honoured zones of empathy, in which ethics and standards of conduct are passed from one generation to another. Such institutions stand against the market, protecting their members.

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The political challenge is identifying a good society that would appeal to the precariat. Politicians will not respond adequately if they just recommend a $15 hourly minimum wage and reform of the Employment Standards Act. They must extend rights to everybody, whatever their work status, and enable the precariat to have representation in all agencies and institutions that concern them.

Above all, politicians must address those inequalities most affecting the precariat. All great political movements have started by asking what the rising class regard as the key assets and what forms of inequality should be subject to redistribution.

In that regard, old political mantras look irrelevant. On the right, claims for a meritocracy, a belief that market mechanisms allied to education will produce equitable efficient outcomes, look willfully ideological when the reality is winner-takes-all, loser-loses-all markets, when social mobility is dwindling to a trickle and when rent-seeking is rampant.

On the left, the socialist mantra looks silly, with demands for public ownership of the means of production irrelevant for the precariat. It wants an agenda of freedom and redistribution of key assets to be used in dealing with its realities.

The assets most unequally distributed are fourfold.

First, socio-economic security is more unequally distributed than income. If in the precariat, you have none. How will politicians ensure that everybody has enough security to give them reasonable control over their lives?

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Second, there is inequality of control of time. If in the precariat, you have no control, and must do this and that all the time, under stress, being ready to take low-paid jobs, retraining, networking, multitasking and so on. We need a politics of time.

Third, access to quality space is growing more unequal. The elite salariat have second homes, spacious gardens and holidays in exotic places. The precariat is squeezed into compressed and polluted space, deprived of the commons. We need to reverse the shrinking commons, the public amenities and spaces. The precariat is intuitively green.

Fourth, the precariat has no access to income generated by capital. Real wages for the precariat will continue their long stagnation. New mechanisms are needed to reduce inequality. Canada has debated a basic income. Without moving in that direction, the nascent anger over insecurity and income inequality will become explosive. The precariat will lead that anger. Politicians, trade unions and others must reinvent themselves, or be swept aside.

Guy Standing, a professor of economics and development studies at the University of London, is author ofThe Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (2011) and A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens (2014).

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