Written by Andrew Cash | Published by the Vancouver Sun
Andrew Cash: Public Policy Must Create Standards for Independent Workers
So, let’s say you have a choice. It’s between a stable full time job with a pension, benefits and a salary that allows you to imagine building a life, a future, a family, maybe even buying a house—ok forget about that last one. The other choice is to cobble together a much lower paid living doing a variety of short term contracts, temp, freelance and part time work, none of which comes with the aforementioned benefits, pension, job security or labour law protections. Maybe you’re delivering food using a tech platform, bartending, writing grants for a not-for-profit and designing websites. When you get the flu you work sick or you don’t get paid. Your hours are all over the place rendering child care next to impossible to find let alone afford. And speaking of getting paid, remember that client you invoiced four months ago and now can’t even get on the phone? That client’s long gone and there is next to nothing you can do about it.
So, which type of work would you choose? Ya, thought so. Strange though that we are inundated with messages, memes, authoritative punditry and corporate think tank studies that tell us workers work in the “gig economy” because they love the freedom, the choice and, you know, it fits their lifestyle. What? Really?
Let’s be honest, too many workers today are a bicycle accident away from the financial abyss and no amount of tech spin can gloss over it. To be sure there are many who have chosen to work freelance, are proud of it and love working this way. But ‘indie-by-choice’ workers don’t believe their work should be so precarious. And then there is the much larger group of ‘indie-by chance’ workers who trained for a conventional full time job—they have the student debt to prove it — but those jobs simply aren’t to be found.
Indeed, most new jobs in the Canadian economy are freelance, on contract, solo self employed, contingent, intern, temp or part time. In other words independent and outside the traditional employer-employee relationship. Public and private sector employers that once hired full time staff are shifting their responsibilities for their workers on to the shoulders of workers themselves. Today one third of all Canadian workers earn at least part of their living this way: without access to things like employee health, dental or disability coverage, the right to be paid on time, employment insurance, occupational health and safety standards, career training, or even a water cooler around which to complain. Heck, a statutory holiday, like say Labour Day, isn’t even a guarantee.
And while work has changed, the institutions established to support workers have not. Major threads of our social safety net were built on the postwar industrial model of work when most women worked for free at home; most men had full time 9 to 5 jobs, one employer for an entire career, earning enough to raise a family, own a home and retire with a defined benefits pension. That’s not happening anymore, not even for many with conventional jobs. It is why some governments are finally beginning to update employment laws and standards to, in effect, make bad bosses better. That is a very good thing but it doesn’t mean much to a contract admin or IT worker, a house renovator, a self employed artist or any of the five to six million Canadian workers who do not have a “boss” in the legal sense and are therefore outside of any of the law’s protections and benefits.
The rise in independent work requires innovative public policy that connects to and supports today’s workers. We need to build a new, more stable floor upon which everyone can land, stand and thrive including indie workers. Maybe then it’ll ring a bit more true that indie workers find that the gig economy fits their lifestyle because they also have legal protection against contract non payment, access to paid parental leave, and can even go to the dentist once in a while without going broke.
Andrew Cash is the co-founder of the Urban Worker Project, a national initiative aimed at building a stronger voice and better conditions for freelance, on contract, self employed and part time workers in Canada.
This oped series is a supporting part of SFU Public Square’s 2018 Community Summit: Brave New Work, running February 26 – March 7.