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Workplace review sees problems, but we await solutions

Jobs in Ontario are increasingly precarious, a new report makes clear. What can be done about that trend remains unclear.

The Changing Workplaces Review commissioned by the Ministry of Labour released an interim report last week, chronicling the input the group has received thus far in looking at changes to the province’s Employment Standards Act (ESA) and Labour Relations Act (LRA).

Not surprisingly, much of it is conflicting, with some employers looking for fewer controls and more flexibility, while the groups representing the public are looking for solutions to increasingly unstable work situations.

“Probably the most significant employer concern expressed to us relates to hours of work and the limitations on scheduling that are currently in the ESA,” the report notes.

“On the other hand, worker advocates, unions, many non-government organizations, policy institutes, academics and individuals see in the current situation of vulnerable and precarious workers an urgent and serious threat to the well-being, not only of a significant number of workers in Ontario, but also to their families and to Ontario society.”

Without using the label, the report makes note of the McJobs phenomenon, particularly the shift from good manufacturing jobs to often poor service sector employment. From 1976 to 2015, for example, manufacturing’s share of total employment fell from 23.2 per cent to 10.8 per cent. Over that same period, the service sector’s share increased to 79.8 per cent from 64.5.

Good jobs are increasingly hard to come by, as the low-wage workforce in Ontario grew by 94 per cent over the past 17 years, vastly outstripping the 30 per cent growth in total employment. More of us are in precarious employment situations than ever before.

Very much indicative of the problem is the increase in the number of workers earning the minimum wage, 11.9 per cent of employees in 2014 versus just 2.4 per cent in 1997. Over that same period, the share of low-wage workers (making within $4 of the minimum wage) went to 29.4 per cent from 19.8 per cent.

Not only do these jobs pay poorly – often not enough to cover basic living expenses – those in them are some of the most exploited and vulnerable workers. There are few, if any benefits. No sick days or leave provisions. Lack full-time or even steady hours.

In fact, unpredictable hours are the norm for most minimum wage workers (six in 10) and for many workers earning between the minimum wage and $15 an hour in 2014 (four in 10). The lower the pay, the more likely an Ontario worker is forced to take unpaid time off if needed: only 16.8 per cent of minimum wage earners who were absent got paid time off in 2014 and only 24.9 per cent of workers earning $11-$15 got paid time off. In sharp contrast, the majority (56.8 per cent) of Ontario workers earning more than $15 an hour got paid during their absence.

Not only are a growing number of jobs paying less, full-time work is harder to come by. More Ontarians are left to scramble for multiple part-time and contract jobs, none of which provide security. A bigger share of employees in Ontario work less than 40 hours a week today than was the case in 1997: this share grew by 19 per cent, to 50.5 per cent in 2014 from 42.5 per cent in 1997. In other words, one out of two workers in Ontario don’t have a 40-hour-a-week job.

The commission continues to study the changing workplace, and will eventually recommend updates to the relevant acts. Whether Ontarians will benefit remains a big unknown.

 

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