The Gig Economy

By Andrew Cash

When Edmonton rock radio station The Bear planned to broadcast an all-night Halloween contest from a graveyard, they wanted 22-year-old student Andy Ferguson to work the shift. Ferguson had already worked that morning and he really didn’t want to do the “graveyard shift” too—but then, who ever does? You do it because you need the money. But Andy Ferguson wasn’t getting paid. He was working for free as part of a practicum for his program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. In his case, he needed management to sign off on his school assignment and he worried that if he complained too much or refused the shift he might not get that signature.

He grudgingly worked that night, reportedly sitting in a hearse watching over a coffin, after which, in the early hours of November 1, 2011, he drove the hour-long commute to his home. Around 6 a.m., his car crossed the median line and collided head-on with a truck. Ferguson was killed. Police determined he had no drugs or alcohol in his system and that he was not on his phone. His family believes he fell asleep.

And while it was clear that Andy Ferguson had worked long hours—16 of the previous 24—and it was plausible that those long hours may have contributed to his death, it was unclear what his status was under Canada’s labour laws. Ferguson was a practicum student, and education is a provincial matter. He was working for a broadcaster, however, a sector regulated by the federal government. Neither government wanted to claim any responsibility, and in any case the question was moot as far as the feds were concerned. In a written response to questions from Ferguson’s family after his death, the Human Resources ministry announced: “In order to be protected under labour standards provisions, an employer/employee relationship needs to exist, and it is not the case for practicum students.” End of story.

Only it’s not.

It isn’t just practicum students who fall through the jurisdictional cracks of our country’s labour laws. A growing number of workers are cobbling together a living doing part-time, temporary, intern, contractual, contingent, freelance or self-employed work. Such workers make up an estimated one-fifth to one-third of Canada’s workforce and rising. Many are without access to EI, paid sick days, vacation pay, stat holidays, parental leave—or the protection of regulated working conditions. Despite being called by different names (e.g., precarious, non-standard or independent), these jobs share important common ground: most of them—the majority of new jobs created in Canada’s economy—exist outside the traditional framework of an employee/employer relationship. Besides offering no workplace benefits, pension or job security, these jobs provide little protection under existing labour laws.

While this places workers in precarious situations, it should raise serious alarm bells for everyone, particularly governments whose labour laws and standards are woefully out of date and irrelevant for more and more workers.

Besides offering no workplace benefits, pension or job security, most new jobs provide little protection under existing labour laws.

Independent workers can be grouped into two blocks: those who are indie by choice and those who are indie by chance. Those in the “indie-by-choice” category report that they love the work they do and would never take a full-time conventional job. Those in the much larger “indie-by-chance” category would, if given a choice between the instability and complications of a freelance career or a stable full-time job with a pension, benefits, skills training, promotion opportunities, a coffee machine and a fast internet connection, overwhelmingly choose the stable, full-time job.

This flies in the face of what we often hear: that millennials love working several low-paying jobs at the same time because, you know, they like the choice and the flexibility and it fits with their lifestyle. Such language is calculated to put a “tech sexy” spin on crappy jobs. And while there is certainly a lot about the tech revolution to be excited about, the euphoria over the so-called “gig economy” serves to mask decades of wage stagnation, the sharp decline in stable, full-time employment and the increasing income inequality which has embedded itself in our society.

Despite the rapid growth in non-standard employment, indie workers are often invisible to the eye. We still think of work as a physical destination, workers as part of a broad workplace, connected to others working for the same employer in the same physical space, starting and ending their workdays at the same time. Of course that still happens, though less and less, but it isn’t quite how indie workers experience things. They can be found working from their kitchen table, co-working spaces, studios and coffee shops; on public transit and in public libraries, as well as in offices alongside permanent employees of large for-profit companies and government bureaucracies. They work for tiny NGOs, Crown corporations, churches and unions. They work in hospitals, universities, newsrooms and bars. They are often juggling several jobs and contracts at the same time.

They fix our leaky roofs, walk our dogs, look after our seniors, tutor our children and drive us to the airport, do our bookkeeping and write this article. They work on Sundays and statutory holidays; they work when others play; they work when they have the flu or are on chemo. When they do take a week’s holiday, well, that’s a week where they simply don’t get paid.

And as you walk by a coffee shop or a co-working space it may be tempting to think that all of those mostly young people hunched over their laptops are doing okay. Doubtless, at a glance, Andy Ferguson would have looked just fine too.

But what isn’t visible is the low-wage contract they may be working on or the fact that they may have not been paid for work already completed and maybe never will be. You won’t see the stress of always working alone—outside of a workplace culture and community—without access to mentors, colleagues or career guidance. Or recourse if they get bilked by the client. You won’t see the untreated physical or mental health issues; the sexual harassment that young women indie workers especially face; the expensive and unstable housing or massive student debt hanging over their heads like dark clouds. You also won’t see their struggles to find affordable convenient daycare for their own young children, or that their family members are themselves working in low-waged precarious employment.

Until recently, indie workers occupied a very small corner of the labour market—usually those creative types who didn’t want to work for The Man or do the nine to five. It was easy for policymakers, governments, labour, business and the media to ignore them. Not so today. Project management, design, in-house technicians, accounting, HR, legal, clerical and data work can all be contracted out, if they haven’t been already replaced by artificial intelligence. Large telecoms and their media affiliates contract out where once they hired full-time, permanent staff. Financial institutions rely on contingent workers for a whole host of tech functions. Many manufacturers don’t actually hire workers—they contract a temp agency to do it for them.

Troublingly, it isn’t just the private sector engaged in the race to decouple from its workers. Despite cash infusions from the federal government, the CBC, once the gold standard for an arts job, has contracted out virtually all of its TV production except news. So instead of having a full-time job as a producer or cameraperson for the CBC, you are likely now on a cyclical round of contracts with production companies who “staff up” when needed. The federal government directly spends an estimated $12-billion a year on outsourced services.

Nothing used to say job security quite like a tenured position in one of Canada’s post-secondary educational institutions. Yet today 70 per cent of Ontario’s college teachers are on short-term contracts. Contract hires are up over 200 per cent since 1999, while the hiring of regular professors is up by just 14 per cent. One contract professor told me: “One day I just decided to tell my students how much money I was being paid. I had two students come up to me after to say they made more waiting on tables a few nights a week.”

Studies show that those in non-standard work take on more stress and are more likely to get sick. Consequently they use our healthcare system more. Without access to paid sick leave or workplace extended health benefits, they will continue to work, eventually showing up at a hospital emergency ward. With schedules that roam the 24-hour dial, childcare becomes an almost insurmountable hurdle, which then limits especially women indie workers’ ability to gain a career foothold. Familial and community implications abound. How is an indie worker, holding down multiple part-time jobs with variable hours, supposed to get the kids to a soccer game, be home to make dinner and help with school work, take an upgrading course, attend a public meeting about an important local issue?

Most job-creation in the post-2008 recovery has been part-time and independent. According to StatsCan, 90 per cent of all jobs created in Canada in 2015 and 2016 were temporary, and they paid on average 30 per cent less than corresponding permanent positions. In the US, 94 per cent of net job growth between 2005 and 2015 came from “alternative employment arrangements.” Officially almost one quarter of Canadian workers work part-time. But don’t trust the numbers alone. Just go into your local Home Depot, Tim Hortons or large grocery store chain and try to find a full-time employee other than the manager.

In the ferocious nexus of globalization, automation and 40 years of laissez-faire governments, employers need fewer workers to rake in those massive profits, and have fewer obligations to those they do need. Take Apple, for example, the most valuable company in the US today at $900-billion. Apple employs 123,000 workers worldwide. Now consider the top US company in 1964—AT&T, valued at a measly $283-billion in 2018 dollars. AT&T employed 758,611 people in 1964, over six times more than Apple today. In fact, AT&T employed more workers in 1964 than six of the seven most valuable US companies in 2017 combined…! This list includes such behemoths as Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon and ExxonMobil.

These numbers are even more striking if you consider that the US population was 192 million in 1964, while it is 326 million today, and a significant percentage of the workforce of America’s most valuable companies do not live or work in the US. So, not only are fewer conventional workers required, those that are needed aren’t needed on a full-time permanent basis.

Most job-creation post-2008 has been part-time and independent. Officially almost one quarter of Canadian workers work part-time.

The new economy is most damaging to young workers, who see themselves as Generation Screwed. As a recent Ontario college grad put it to me,
“…my former employer eliminated my position two weeks before my probation was to expire, [partly] to make me ineligible for severance.

“This is why Generation Screwed is where we find ourselves today. Whole segments of the population are societal nomads with a feeling of disempowerment and a lack of purpose… enchained by massive student debt and paralyzed by precarious employment.”

Simply using the social policy tools of the past won’t solve the issues for indie workers today. No matter how many sick days conventional workers are guaranteed, indie workers will get zero. Who’d pay for it? Who’d cover their work when they are sick? How can a contract worker get minimum- wage protection or parental leave, or employment insurance between gigs? This is brand new terrain. Expanding parental leave for federally regulated employees does not help indie workers, who can’t even get one day of parental leave, never mind 18 months. The new reality of work means we need to look for ways to support independent workers today while at the same time pushing back against the egregious, wage-lowering effects of globalization, artificial intelligence and automation.

Indie workers need a number of things to make work better. Let’s start with laws to stop contract non-payment. With no recourse to guard against it, independent workers are vulnerable to wage theft. Extending the definition of who is an employee under provincial and federal labour laws would allow contract workers to claim some of the same rights, benefits and protections as conventional employees have. Cracking down on the misclassification of contract workers, as the Ontario government has recently announced in a sweeping new labour bill, is also crucial.

Tax changes to allow for income averaging are important, since the annual income of many independents is uneven from year to year. A good year of income likely encompasses all the low and unpaid work, networking, research and general schlepping you did in the previous few years, so it is a fair argument that the income in the good year should be averaged out with the lower income of the previous ones. This would allow independent workers to hold on to a bit more of their money during the good years and help stabilize their income over time.

Shut out of workplace benefits, indie workers need government to step up to the plate and expand our public health system to include pharma and dental care. The Ontario government has enacted enhanced healthcare to cover drug costs for anyone under the age of 25—a step forward. Access to parental leave and a form of employment insurance could help bridge the gaps between indie workers’ gigs. More affordable, accessible and flexible publicly subsidized childcare would reflect the reality of parent indie workers’ lives.

A portable indie benefits program modelled after those of the film and construction industries could provide extended health and perhaps pension benefits in an economy where few workers will stay at the same company for even several months, let alone for their whole career. Additional access to skills, mentorship and career training is crucial in this era.

With globalization, automation and artificial intelligence, employers need fewer workers.

Canada needs a new job quality index that measures, in addition to the raw job creation/loss numbers, the kind of jobs being lost and created. For example, do these jobs come with a pension, benefits, job security? Could a young person imagine starting a family and buying a house with this job? Is this job close to public transit, fast commuting and affordable housing? Generally our data is incomplete when it comes to knowing how people work, who is working and also how much work is unpaid. How we count work and what we count must improve.

Finally, public sector employers—hospitals, colleges and universities, Crown corporations and agencies, and all municipal, regional, provincial, territorial and federal governments themselves—must become model employers. If decent work and good, stable jobs are important to the health and well-being of society, the economy and democracy itself, then governments must lead the way.

Some of these ideas won’t cost the public treasury a dime. Others will be expensive but recoup savings over time (e.g., through reduced demand for healthcare). But change won’t come easy. In a former era of seismic changes to the labour market and the economy, it took nothing less than a constitutional amendment—for goodness sakes—to set up what is known now as Employment Insurance. Indeed, work has changed again. Now we need new laws, policies and programs to recognize the new reality.

Andrew Cash is a journalist, musician, former MP and president and co-founder of the Urban Worker Project.

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