On June 25th, SiG is hosting a webinar with Sean Geobey of the University of Waterloo, Wingham Rowan, Director of the UK’s Beyond Jobs project, Dr. Wayne Lewchuk, Professor in the School of Labour Studies & Department of Economics, McMaster University and Michelynn Laflèche, Director of Research, Public Policy & Evaluation, United Way Toronto. Wayne and Michelynn jointly authored “The Precarity Penalty.”
In this interview, Sean and Wingham introduce the webinar subject matter.
Sean Geobey: The Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) report from United Way Toronto and McMaster University outlines precarious employment in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) and the consequences for the 44% of the GTHA’s workforce working under precarious conditions. There are quite a few similarities between the Canadian labour market and that of the UK, though in some specific areas the regulatory environment and terminology is a bit different. For example, in Canada the conversation hasn’t included concepts like the “zero-hour contract.” However, there are still some very compelling parallels, and I wonder from your perspective in the UK, where is this labour market shift coming from?
Wingham Rowan: Decline of organized labour is part of it of course. But so is demand for responsiveness from customers, investors and service users. Employers are under increasing pressure to flex. And they now have sophisticated software that manages staff count with brutal efficiency.
SG: Here we see a lot of definitional uncertainty between temporary, involuntary part-time, casual, informal and precarious work. Some of this is tied to the difficulties researchers, activists and policymakers have in developing common language, but it seems much of it also comes from increasingly blurry boundaries between the concepts. To me this is particularly troubling as much of this is unregulated grey market activity. Is that something you’re seeing too?
WR: Increasingly that’s so. If you are only going to employ someone for a few hours here and there it’s very tempting to offer them cash-in-hand. Likewise, if you are a worker who doesn’t know if you will be called in by your employer today, you are going to seek whatever earning opportunities you can, if they decide you’re not required. Working informally is bad news in the long run. It takes individuals out of the system, in fear of detection, creating a ramp into further illicit activity.
SG: Going back to the PEPSO report, we see that precarious workers at all income levels have a harder time with the enforcement of legal workplace protections (both regulatory and through organized labour) and accessing services that enable them to improve their working conditions like childcare, training and transportation. I struggle with how much of the challenge is inherent in precarious labour markets and how much is because those markets don’t seem particularly transparent.
WR: Absolutely. If you are seeking odd hours of work here and there, to fit around your primary employment for instance, the quality of market you can access is crucial. Someone with conventional employment only enters the labour market every few years when it’s time to find a new job. An irregular worker can be in and out of the market, hoping to get hired, several times a day.
Current markets for odd hours of work in the community are inadequate: time consuming to use, there’s a high risk of transaction failure, high overheads. And they are too disparate to offer any meaningful data: a worker has no idea of where their opportunities are given their locality/skills/times of availability. There’s little hope of progression to new skills and higher paid, more secure work.
That problem needs to be solved for a lot of people. We hear a lot about the newly precarious worker. But there’s a core of around 20% of the population who NEED odd hours of work that fit around them. They could be carers, parents with complex childcare needs, those with unpredictable medical conditions, anyone starting a home business or students on low income. A job is not an option for many. They need a flow of personalized economic opportunities.
SG: Labour markets have always functioned within regulatory and public investment frameworks and alongside social sector organizations. Our public education, health care, childcare and transportation infrastructure have been critical to the functioning of the 20th century labour market in Canada, as has been the role of organized labour in advocating worker protection and investment both through collective bargaining and their advocacy at-large. What I find compelling is the possibility that technologically-enhanced transparency in these precarious labour markets could enable reformation of those 20th century systems to better meet the needs of this workforce. Are you seeing any of those broader policy or organizing shifts?
WR: The British government has been far sighted around these issues. Since 2005, we’ve been building technology for what we call a CEDAH: Central Database of Available Hours. It’s very different from existing markets: city-wide, all possible types of work. Crucially it puts the individual in charge. They sell the hours they want, on their own terms, to as many employers as they wish.
The currency in these systems is reliability: does a person do what they say they will do? If they consistently fulfil the bookings that are within their parameters, they become increasingly valuable for local employers. So it pays to upskill them.
Collective bargaining for precarious workers is a tentative concept. Our work focuses on how you entice all the activity currently in shadow transactions into legitimate economies. Key to that is allowing each person to set their own parameters. So, I might be willing to do bookings on the other side of the city at short notice, but only for a very high rate. But I could be better value for a booking next week in the next street. I might also be more expensive for employers I don’t like. If I am reliable and responsive, they may just have to pay it. It’s crucial I have the data that informs my decisions of course. It may be that one-size-fits all payrates are too crude these days. There are better opportunities in giving workers the means to progress into new, higher paying, skills and types of work that fit their personal ambitions.
SG: The dark side to all this is the concern that online-enabled casualized labour will grind-down labour protections and wages even further than we have seen already. It is not hard to find stories of Uber and Lyft drivers or TaskRabbiters barely being able to scrape by in loosely regulated or completely unregulated markets. The fear that online labour markets are undermining labour standards has become increasingly common and I’d argue for good reason. While I am hopeful that the Ontario government’s review of labour and employment standards will help bring some of this work into focus, a major reworking of the regulatory environment hasn’t happened yet.
Similarly, while there have been some isolated steps to develop various “freelancer union” models, and while some sectors with a long history of intermittent work, such as construction and media, have well-established collective bargaining approaches, the organizing of precarious workers has been patchy at best. Ultimately my key concern is this – can online markets for labour enable a productive response to employment precarity, or must they necessarily push it to its negative extreme?
WR: It’s a fallacy to assume efficient markets mean a race to the floor in standards or pricing. A good market can unlock demand, support all sorts of interventions and allow workers all sorts of options denied now. It is poor quality markets, like TaskRabbit, that can mask so much unfairness. Obviously a market in the legitimate economy must enforce minimum wage and all sorts of other regulations. So key to raising income could be pushing up minimum wage as cities like Seattle have done.
Like it or not, it may be that precarious work is here to stay. It may be second best to a job, but we need to make it the best second best. Governments spend billions a year to make their jobs markets as inclusive and efficient as possible. They do next to nothing for those seeking irregular work. Perhaps it’s time for a full-spectrum employment policy that fosters the best possible markets for ALL forms of employment. There is a model of irregular work that is empowering, accessible, rewarding and potentially more secure than a job (because the individual has much wider relationships, experience and skills). It’s hard to glimpse given the appalling state of current precarious work. But I will be doing my best to explain what we’ve learned in the UK in the webinar.
Editor’s Question: What do you think after reading this post? Is the reality of precarious work here to stay or do we need to challenge this growing employment trend?