Mar 8, 2018

Technology is changing how we work. How this affects workers is up to us.


While many workers of my parents’ generation expected to spend their entire careers in a permanent full-time job with one or two employers, young workers today increasingly face project-based or limited-term employment options. In fact, the very structure of what a job looks like is changing as technology unbundles traditional occupations into smaller tasks that can be performed by workers located anywhere in the world.

The industry giants of the 20th century employed large numbers of people in good jobs with regular hours, benefits and pensions. Today’s largest global companies are digital mega-corporations with enormous profits but only a small number of direct employees. The platforms created by these tech giants allow millions of people all over the world to get paid for performing tasks in the so-called gig economy. However, these workers are not considered employees and therefore not eligible for benefits or basic protections such as paid vacation or sick time, employment insurance or compensation in case of an accident or injury at work.

Technology can provide workers flexibility to choose when and where to work but for many vulnerable workers the flexibility is one way. Freelancers and gig economy workers often have little control over their work or rates of pay. Work is not always available and the lack of predictability about the volume of work—and thus earnings—often results in lower incomes and never-ending stress.

Today’s largest global companies are digital mega-corporations with enormous profits but only a small number of direct employees.

These workers are part of the growing army of people in employment arrangements with some degree of precarity, which could include not knowing one’s schedule in advance, frequent on-call work, short-term contracts, large variability in income from week to week and few, if any, benefits.

The Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario research team linked precarious work to poorer mental health and anxiety even for higher-paid workers, and documented the damaging impacts of insecure work on well-being, family life and community connections. For low-wage workers, the lack of access to employer-provided health benefits, pensions and paid sick time creates further challenges.

Technology is changing our jobs but we have the power—and responsibility—to shape how workers experience this change.

Unfortunately, Canada’s go-to policy response to the changing nature of work—promoting skills-training and education—is woefully insufficient. In addition to education, workers need stronger protections from exploitation in the workplace, a guarantee that work provides a decent minimum quality of life and basic assistance when they fall ill, get injured or lose their job.

Governments can use regulation to change the rules of the game and rebalance the inherently unequal power relationship between workers and employers. For example, workers can have a stronger voice in the workplace through collective bargaining and effective dispute-resolution mechanisms.

Here in BC, our employment standards have not been comprehensively reexamined in over 20 years so it should come as no surprise that they don’t fit the new realities. As in other jurisdictions, our workplace rules were designed around the 20th century model of a full-time permanent job with a single employer that is expected to take care of its workers by providing at least a minimum wage as well as training, benefits, paid time off for illness and holidays and retirement security through a pension plan.

These protections didn’t come by chance or from the good will of employers — they were fought for and won by labour unions in individual workplaces, unions that then advocated for governments to extend these protections to all paid employees.

Technology is changing our jobs but we have the power—and responsibility—to shape how workers experience this change.

However, the old model of providing basic workplace protections and benefits no longer reflects the reality of an increasing number of workers who are either employed on short-term contracts with no benefits or work outside of traditional employment as freelancers and gig-economy workers. These workers are left to fend for themselves in case of illness, injury, a family crisis or unexpected layoff.

Even workers covered by employment standards often find that their rights exist only on paper — unless they are represented by labour unions that can help enforce them. Since 2002, workers in BC whose employers don’t follow the rules must use a “self-help” kit to directly raise the issue with their boss, raising the risk of being fired.

For workplace rights to be meaningful, we must proactively enforce them and impose higher penalties for employers who break the rules.

Providing more stability in people’s lives overall through quality basic services—affordable housing, child care, transit, pharmacare, and dental coverage—can help workers maintain a decent quality of life even when they experience insecurity and large fluctuations in income at work.

The ambitious measures on housing and child care in the recent BC budget are exactly the type of policies BC workers need and the federal government must also step up.

It’s time to redesign social policy and workplace protections to fit the new job market realities and ensure that all workers are covered no matter the nature of their employment. 

A shorter version of this article was published by the Vancouver Sun on February 27, 2018.

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