According to a recent study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in June 2015, minimum wage jobs in Ontario have skyrocketed from 2.4 per cent of all employees in 1997 to 11.9 per cent in 2014. In other words, in 1997, one in forty Ontario workers were working for minimum wage. Today it’s one out of eight. While the total number of jobs in Ontario grew by 30 per cent over the past 17 years, the number of low-wage jobs (defined as making within $4 of the minimum wage) have grown by 94 per cent. Increasingly, the wealthy are putting the burden of the capitalist crisis on the backs of the most downtrodden sector of workers.
Precarious labour is particularly hard hitting in Ontario. Unstable working hours at minimum wage affects more than 50 per cent of Greater Toronto and Hamilton workers. Full-time hours are now becoming a luxury to obtain and it is harder to land a 40 hour week job today than it was in 1997. Currently, one out of two workers in Ontario do not work 40 hours a week. The rise of precarious labour in Canada is strongly connected to the loss of full-time protected jobs. Consistently, we have seen the loss of full-time employment in favour of part-time work.
Precarious employment is particularly prevalent in the private sector. The largest decline in union density has transpired in the private sector, falling from 19 per cent in 1997 to 14 per cent in 2014. In Ontario, about 78 per cent of jobs are in the private sector, so a drop in unionization has had a major impact on the lives of tens of thousands of Ontarians.
Who are low wage workers?
The ‘new’ labour market has shifted the traditional demographic of people who used to work minimum irregular shifts. The assumption that teenagers take on most minimum wage jobs for pocket money is completely false. By 2014, 66 per cent of minimum wage workers were older than 20, while 34 per cent were teens. In other words, 6.6 out of 10 minimum wage earners are adults trying to make ends meet. It is not at all uncommon to work two or three minimum wage jobs to maintain a household in Toronto.
Low wage workers are disproportionately represented by women and immigrants. While it is commonly known that women and racialized groups are over-represented in part-time and temporary work, they are also over-represented as minimum wage earners. Although 50 per cent of Ontario workers are women, 72 per cent of permanent part-time workers are women. In 2010 Canadian women spent an average of 50 hours per week providing for their households, including children and elderly care, while men spent an average of 24 hours. Single mothers and women confined by impoverished conditions and domestic abuse heavily rely on part-time precarious work to balance household work. Services like universal daycare, subsidized elderly care and affordable housing would lift women out of vulnerable situations and massively ease the burden.
According to Statistics Canada, recent immigrants are three times more likely to be minimum wage earners than Canadian born workers. Immigrants that arrive in Canada with qualifications that are not recognized end up seeking any kind of menial job to provide for their families while they upgrade their credentials. In fact, they are more likely to be in precarious employment for the first decade of their life in Canada than their Canadian counterparts. A 2012 report from the Law Commission of Ontario, Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Work, concluded that it is recent immigrants that “have borne the brunt of the recession’s impact and have been disproportionately affected by rising unemployment, reductions in full-time work and declining manufacturing base.”
In March 2015, the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), released a statement on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which outlined that the Ontario economic slump has fuelled the crisis of racial inequality in the province. Racialized communities that face precarious employment, persisting poverty and inequality also experience youth violence and high suicide rates. Sid Ryan, then-leader of the OFL, concluded that "Poverty and precariousness continue to plague Ontario’s racialized communities and drive a wedge between the rich and the rest of us. The elimination of poverty and the racial discrimination that too often underpins it must be an integral part of Ontario’s plan for economic recovery."
Alongside racialized individuals and families, the Aboriginal population is significantly vulnerable to precarious labour. The OFL report states that while racialized workers earn only $0.81 for every dollar earned by their non-racialized counterpart, Aboriginal workers face a dramatic drop to $0.46. The Aboriginal population has endured harsh challenges in the labour market especially following the recession. As of December 2012, there are approximately 300,000 Aboriginal people living in Ontario, with 80 per cent of them living off reserves. In 2008, the Ontario unemployment rate for Aboriginals aged 25-54 living off reserves was 9.2 per cent, compared to 5.2 per cent among the non-Aboriginal population. By 2013, the gap widened with a 12.6 per cent unemployment rate among Aboriginal population and a 7.5 per cent rate among non- Aboriginal.
Precarious Employment and Mental Health
Anyone who has experienced seeking full time, well paid work following post-secondary school or being laid off in recent times can attest to the stress and anxiety that accompanies the job search. Consistent studies have discovered a strong link between precarious employment and poor mental and physical health. The World Health Organization has reported that precarious work globally is a significant contributor to "health and health equity". Precarious employment results in constant insecurity and anxiety.
In a 2014 survey, the Canadian Payroll Association found that living paycheque to paycheque was a stark reality for a majority of working Canadians. Approximately 51 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they would find it difficult to meet their financial obligations if their paycheque was delayed by a single week. In addition, 63 per cent reported living paycheque to paycheque were aged 18 to 29. The presumption that hard work pays off is an illusion. The reality is that the contradiction of inconsistent hours, increasing debt and insecure living conditions contributes to high levels of stress. Attaining medication, sick leaves or counselling is nearly impossible since part-time employment does not cover such benefits.
Precarious employment has also strained the growth and development of families. According to a report from the Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario Project (PEPSO), it discovered that “Workers in Precarious employment are almost six times more likely to delay starting a relationship because of employment uncertainty compared to those in Secure employment and almost three times more likely to delay having children.”
What are our options to end precarious labour?
The United Way and The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, along with many other non-profit organizations are championing reform of the Employment Standards Act (ESA) in Ontario, to include regulations and sick days for those who are precariously employed. A proposal to consider changing the ESA to provide advance scheduling notice for workers and encourage unionization among small workplace employees are few of the suggestions. While these reforms would be welcome, they will make little difference to precarious workers. Reforming employment acts to incorporate the changing nature of employment does not address the root cause of this precarious employment, and instead upholds that precarious labour is a permanent reality. It is also worth observing that many who are precariously employed do not have the power to demand the enforcement of the existing laws in fear of termination. Infractions and lack of enforcement of the currently weak existing labour laws is rampant, so why would new laws fare any better?
The reality is that precarious employment is a symptom of capitalism in crisis. As long as capitalism exists, precarious work is here to stay and will only get worse. We must understand that no amount of reforms or new legislation will change the contemporary labour market to include fair paying jobs with security and union representation. The new form of precarious labour is indicative of the capitalist crisis and is a global phenomenon that affects billions of workers. The desire to retain the nostalgia of secure union jobs in the manufacturing industry of the 1950s and 1960s is utopian. The post-war boom, following the colossal government directed war efforts, was an aberration of capitalism that will probably never be replicated. Job security and union protection, won through the class struggle of previous generations, is not an heirloom for modern youth.
Today, youth unemployment in Canada hovers at approximately 13 per cent, nearly double that of the general unemployment rate. The unemployment rate does not include those who have given up looking for a job, working unpaid internships or those who are overqualified and are working part-time positions. The number of unpaid internships has soared since the 2008 crisis, with some estimates intimating that 300,000 people, mostly young college and university graduates, are currently working for free at some of the biggest and wealthiest corporations. The situation has become dire since student loans average about $27,000, living costs are constantly rising and unaffordable housing is constantly an issue. For youth, capitalism has not provided a solution and precarious employment is just another symptom of this decaying system. We are often told that good stable jobs are scarce and should expect a shortage of job vacancies.
Austerity is not an ideology or a series of policies that one nefarious political party will implement, in order to stave off a rising deficit. Austerity and precarious employment is a response to a global economy in crisis, a crisis of overproduction. Workers are being paid the bare minimum to survive, thus leaving them with no money to purchase the goods they make. The market has too many products and commodities which cannot be sold, therefore big bosses and capitalists will not invest in a stagnant economy. This further aggravates the situation in which workers must now work reduced hours or be laid-off. As Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto:
"The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalized, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level. The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious;..."
Jobs for all and living wages are only possible under socialism!
The only way to solve the problem of precarious labour is to provide good jobs with full benefits, living wages, pensions and unionization rights, but this will not occur under capitalism in crisis. While Marxists support reforms, we observe that they are eventually unsustainable while the economy is controlled by private ownership and the profit motive. Universal day care and affordable housing, living wages and free education are only possible and sustainable under a planned economy, where all industries are nationalized and administered by workers’ democratic control and management. Under a democratically planned economy, monopolies will be publicly owned and the profit motive eliminated. Instead of squeezing a worker for eight, ten or twelve hours a day, six to ten of which are purely to provide profits for the bosses, the paradox of unemployment can be solved. By reducing the working week we can eradicate unemployment while providing people the free time to democratically participate in the management of society. A reduction in working hours will allow everyone to contribute for the benefit of all. Workers will not be worked to death for a meagre wage but work for their needs and wants, while actually enjoying leisure time. Everyone will finally be able to actively contribute to the creation of art, literature, culture and education. Socialism will allow the creative potential of the working class to be unleashed, revolutionizing productivity. Meanwhile, capitalism creates miserable alienated workers while the abilities of the unemployed are discarded. Those who genuinely want to eradicate precarious employment have no choice but to join the fight for socialism.