The world of work is changing as local and global trends come together in a complex web. These trends include the expansion of non-standard employment relationships (such as self-employed workers), the growth of the service sector, fragmented and smaller workplaces, increased globalization, new technologies, and increased demographic diversity. All of it presents many exciting new opportunities, but there’s also a steady decline in job quality, especially for young Canadians. As precarious work grows and income inequality widens, Canadian youth face the real threat of being the first generation with a poorer standard of living than their parents.

But it’s not inevitable. Rather than simply calling on youth to acquire new skills and adapt, there’s a critical need for targeted legislation, policies and programs to ensure that the new jobs being created offer living wages and decent working conditions.

A first step must be to ensure our labour laws and employment standards keep up with changing workplaces. Loopholes and outdated laws have made it profitable for employers to lower the quality of jobs, to move away from offering stable work and instead rely on independent contractors, part-time and temporary workers. This must change.

Times are particularly tough for young Canadians. Canada’s youth unemployment rate is consistently double that of core-age workers, but even more disturbing is the under-employment rate, which now sits at about 26 per cent. That means that one in four young Canadians are under-employed in one form or another. They find themselves in part-time work when they would prefer full-time jobs, face unpredictable hours and a lack of workplace benefits, or are in positions that don’t make use of their skills and expertise. Jobs that were once considered “entry-level” are now “career jobs.”

About half of young Canadians work part-time, and one in five of them do so involuntarily. Almost a third of young workers find themselves in temporary jobs rather than permanent work. Only two per cent of workers under the age of 20, and only nine per cent of workers between the ages of 20 and 24, have workplace pensions. Young workers are facing rising levels of self-employment, as companies increasingly misclassify workers as independent operators, whether intentionally or inadvertently. That misclassification has shifted many costs and risks away from businesses and onto workers, enabling employers to avoid paying taxes and to skirt basic employment standards like minimum wages and hours of work.

This steady degradation of job quality for young Canadians is having a direct impact on quality of life. The amount of debt carried by Canadians under 30 is now double what it was in 1999. Young Canadians are now more likely to live in poverty than older Canadians, with 15 per cent of Canadians aged 20 to 34 currently living in poverty. Canadian society risks seeing a drastic expansion of the “working poor” as social mobility is hampered and income inequity continues to grow.

Discussions often centre on skills development for young people, rather than ensuring that there are actually more jobs available – and that those jobs are of decent quality.

Federal and provincial governments have launched several initiatives to explore employment in general and youth employment specifically. Labour and union activists have been correct to point out that these analyses often miss the mark and, in some cases, have presented solutions that fail to address the root causes of precarious work in Canada. They often focus too heavily on the supply side, rather than offering suggestions on the demand side. In other words, the discussions often centre on skills development for young people, rather than ensuring that there are actually more jobs available – and that those jobs are of decent quality.

Youth today are the most highly educated, diverse and flexible generation Canada has ever seen. Canada ranks first among OECD countries for post-secondary education completion and enrollment continues to rise. As jobs evolve, employers have a responsibility to train their workers for the new skills required, instead of simply demanding an unlimited supply of flexible labour.

To truly address the problem of youth under-employment within the context of changing workplaces, we need to ensure we’re maintaining and creating decent jobs that offer a living wage and reasonable and predictable hours, and that we make use of the incredible skills and talents that young people possess. To do so, clear distinctions need to be made between the inter-related yet disparate trends that are coming together and reshaping the world of work.

Varying trends are regularly conflated in discussions surrounding digitization, innovation and technology. The so-called gig economy, rife with short-term contracts and freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs, is now a somewhat meaningless and overly broad term that melds many trends, including non-standard employment relationships, globalization, the growing service sector and technological advances. Among the most innovative aspects of big sharing-economy companies like Uber and Handy is not the technology used for their apps, but rather the expansion of an exploitative business model, whereby workers are classified as independent operators, excluding them from basic employment standards that would be afforded to employees.

By differentiating between distinct yet simultaneous trends – in this case separating the technology from the employment relationship – we can better pinpoint what aspects of digitization or innovation are making a positive contribution to our workplaces, communities and economies, and what aspects are contributing to growing precarious work and increased social and economic inequity.

It’s difficult to predict how jobs might evolve in the future in terms of tasks performed or skills required, but what’s easy to predict is the ongoing desire for employment that offers a living wage, decent working conditions, employment standards and a fair work-life balance. This is an area where governments must step up to implement strategic policies and legislative reform to ensure that whatever the job looks like, it meets these criteria.

That means, first and foremost, updating labour laws and employment standards. The provinces, territories and Ottawa should follow Ontario’s lead regarding its Changing Workplaces Review and not only revisit labour legislation and employment standards, but also take the next step and implement changes that will actually make a difference in the lives of working Canadians.

The goal must be to provide the broadest spectrum of workers with workplace standards and access to collective bargaining.

The goal must be to provide the broadest spectrum of workers with workplace standards and access to collective bargaining. This could be done by expanding the scope of how employees are defined in order offer protections to those in non-standard employment relationships, such as domestic workers and agricultural workers, and holding employers accountable for workers’ rights throughout their entire value chains, not just those directly employed.

Labour laws must be revised to strengthen workers’ voices by promoting the right to organize and bargain collectively. This would include mandating arbitration during the period when a first contract is being negotiated – a sometimes tense period following certification of a union. Ensuring that collective agreements are transferred to an employer’s relationship with a new contracting company (successor rights), is another way to protect negotiated rights and benefits.

Banning replacement workers, providing protections for unjust terminations during the organizing process and increasing penalties for labour law violations would correct power-imbalances and deter employers from engaging in union-busting practices. We must also explore options for broader-based and sectoral bargaining to address increasingly fragmented workplaces and the growing service sector.

Employment standards must be strengthened and enhanced by revising standards related to hours of work and overtime pay, implementing protections to ensure fair and more predictable scheduling, repealing exemptions for public holidays, increasing entitlements to vacation and other leave, introducing paid sick leave, and levelling the playing field for part-time, temporary and casual employees.

Creating a future of work that is fair for young workers will require a legislated ban on two-tier work contracts, situations where younger workers receive less income or benefits than those who have been on the job longer. There should also be stricter regulations around unpaid internships.

Our governments should study the possibility of a “youth guarantee,” committing to a system where young people have access to skills training or continued education within a certain period of leaving school or becoming unemployed. All this must be combined with efforts to strengthen and expand public services to ensure a safety net for all Canadians.

Companies must be held accountable for ensuring young people move into decent full-time jobs that utilize their incredible diversity, skills and passions. Taking this holistic approach will not only lead to the creation of new quality jobs, but will simultaneously strengthen the voices of Canadians, build vibrant communities, and grow the Canada’s economy in a way that is sustainable for future generations.

This article is part of the The Changing Nature of Work special feature.


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Emily Norgang
Emily Norgang is a senior researcher at the Canadian Labour Congress. Her most recent research focuses on changing workplaces and new forms of work, young workers, responsible business conduct and corporate accountability domestically and abroad.

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