Written by Iglika Ivanova | Published by the Vancouver Sun

February 27, 2018

Iglika Ivanova: How Technology Affects Workers is Up to Us

While many workers of our parents’ generation expected to spend their entire careers in a permanent full-time job with one or two employers, younger workers today are increasingly faced with project-based or limited-term employment options. 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.

Unlike the industry giants of the 20th century that 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 carries the potential to offer workers flexibility to choose when and where to work, but for many vulnerable workers the flexibility goes only one way. Freelancers and gig economy workers often have little control over their labour or their rates of pay. Work is not always available and the lack of predictability of work volume — and thus earnings — often results in lower incomes and never-ending stress.

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 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 to 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 by giving workers a stronger voice in the workplace through collective bargaining and effective dispute-resolution mechanisms.

Here in B.C., our employment standards have not been comprehensively re-examined 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 full-time permanent job with a single employer which is expected to take care of its workers by providing training, benefits and a pension plan. This is no longer a reality for an increasing share of workers who are left to fend for themselves in case of illness, injury, a family crisis or unexpected layoff.

Lack of monitoring and enforcement poses an additional barrier. Even workers still covered by employment standards often find that their rights exist only on paper — unless represented by labour unions that can help enforce them. Since 2002, workers in B.C. whose employers don’t follow the rules must use a “self-help” kit to directly raise the issue with their boss, forcing them to risk 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 outside of work through quality basic services — affordable housing, childcare, transit, pharmacare, and dental coverage — can help workers maintain a decent quality of life even when they experience insecurity and large income fluctuations at work.

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

It’s time to redesign social policy and workplace protections to fit the new job market realities.

Iglika Ivanova is a senior economist and public interest researcher at the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

This op-ed series is a supporting part of SFU Public Square’s 2018 Community Summit: Brave New Work, running Feb. 26 to March 7

This article was originally published on the Vancouver Sun on Februray 27, 2018.