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Is precarious work really a problem? Business and labour groups clash during Ontario review

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This summer, 57-year-old Neil Bruce of Markham, Ont., held three jobs, all of them paying $20 an hour or less. He worked as a church caretaker, provided casual labour for a property management firm in the afternoons, and had a regular gig doing retail sales at a market on the weekend.

"On Fridays, I'd go to the church to take out the garbage at 6 a.m., clean the church and bring in the bins," he says. "Then I'd get in the car and change clothes, go to the market and work there until 7 p.m."

He was happy to do it – it meant he could pay his bills. But sales at the market dropped by about 25 per cent over the summer, so that job evaporated. Mr. Bruce says he now has to rely on family with "uncomfortable regularity" to help pay his bills.

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His situation is increasingly common, says Deena Ladd, co-ordinator of the Workers' Action Centre (WAC), a Toronto-based labour rights group. "Ontario is developing a low-wage economy," she says, pointing to research by Leah Vosko at York University and Andrea Noack at Ryerson University that indicates, in 2014, 33 per cent of employees had low wages (defined as at or below 1.5 times the minimum wage) compared to only 22 per cent a decade earlier.

Along with that comes growing workplace instability, says Ms. Ladd. "Across Canada we're looking at close to 40 per cent of people who are in unstable, short-term, part-time work," she says. "That is normally characterized by having very little control over your hours, your days, your income and over negotiating the conditions of work. And often the lower your pay, the less likely you are to have drug and dental benefits."

Ms. Ladd's group has submitted comments to Ontario's Changing Workplaces Review (CRW). The review's special advisers will make final recommendations by Feb. 28, 2017, on updates to the province's Employment Standards and Labour Relations acts.

WAC is seeking changes that would see the minimum wage rise to $15 an hour and that would eliminate differential pay rates that allow employers to pay students and servers less. But they also seek to redefine the relationship between employers and employees, precluding organizations from "shedding responsibility for their workforce."

Whereas employers once hired employees directly, offering a pension, benefits and a basic floor of protection, "what we've seen in the last 30 years is a massive restructuring of the labour market," says Ms. Ladd.

Employers use intermediaries such as "contractors, temp agencies, franchisees and different types of employment relationships to hire people and they push responsibility for the employee down the chain of production to individual workers or to the intermediaries," she says.

On the opposite side of the fence, Keep Ontario Working (KOW), a group of Ontario's leading employers, industry and sector associations, acknowledges that work is changing and that labour and employment legislation should be modernized.

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But they contend that the case for precarious work is overstated and caution against public policy changes that would place an unintended burden on employers.

"If you look back over the last 35 years or so, there has never been a time when employment was more secure," says Karl Baldauf, vice-president of policy and government relations for the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) and a member of KOW. "Right now the average employee has had the same employer for nine years. There has never been a time in the last generation where Ontarians have been employed by the same employer for a longer period of time."

Mr. Baldauf also points to Statistics Canada figures that show the percentage of Ontarians working part-time has decreased slightly since the early 1990s (although results vary according to age and sex).

And he challenges the assumption that part-time is always bad. "We found that 70 per cent of part-time employed people prefer to work part-time," says Mr. Baldauf. "Frankly, with an aging population, many people are looking to slowly back away from full-time employment. We're also seeing young people who prefer part-time employment because it enables them to make their studies their primary priority."

Finally, he contends that some of those lumped into the category of "non-standard employment" don't need help. "That group includes lawyers and doctors, and they are certainly not people who need increased government regulation to protect them," he says.

Essentially, says Mr. Baldauf, the Keep Ontario Working group takes the position that ill-considered changes to the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act could actually have the reverse effect of lowering employment. With increased Canada Pension Plan benefit premiums, the downstream effects of cap and trade and a rising minimum wage, "I think it's fair to say that there's a perspective among many employers that the cost of doing business is increasing in this province," says Mr. Baldauf.

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Colin Busby, associate director of research at the C.D. Howe Institute, understands the arguments from both business and labour groups. There is some truth to the idea that firms are demanding more flexible, non-standard styles of employment, he says: "We have seen an increase in temporary contract work."

But there's also more demand for flexibility from employees themselves, and "that complicates things for policy makers," he says. "I think the frustration here is with the ambiguity of the term 'precarious work' – it means different things to different people."

Although Busby contends it's entirely appropriate for Ontario to take a look at employment law with an eye to making things better for employees "who are struggling and facing a lot of financial insecurity," he says using it as a blunt instrument to shape employment arrangements carries inherent risks.

"My overarching opinion is that the best way to approach this issue is to look at programs within the social safety net and how they can alleviate and mitigate some of the insecurities that are facing these workers," says Mr. Busby.

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