Social Affairs, Science and Technology

Motion to Authorize Committee to Study the Future of Workers--Debate Continued

November 3, 2020


Hon. Frances Lankin
[18:28]

Honourable senators, I participate today in our deliberations to reintroduce my motion that, as many of you may recall, would authorize the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology to conduct a study on the future of workers in the gig economy.

Before I begin, I want to thank a couple of our colleagues who have been of great assistance to me. Senator Dean gave notice of my intent to reintroduce this motion before our hybrid virtual sittings were available; and in a similar situation, Senator Deacon, Ontario, moved the motion on my behalf. So today, I have the opportunity to speak to that.

My intent is to be relatively — for me, Your Honour, let me assure you — brief, because many of you will remember that I spoke to this motion in the last session before prorogation. I want to provide you the essence of what moves me in terms of bringing this motion forward.

First, I think all of us view our work as an important part of our life. It provides an opportunity for prosperity, for ourselves and our families, and to provide for our families. It is an opportunity for us to make social connections, whether they be virtual, as we see today, or within workplaces in real time. It is a place where we often would hope that we would find fairness and dignity in terms of the work that we are doing, and it is a way of contributing to and participating in our economy. Our work, our contribution, is at the base of what builds a prosperous country, so it is important to us individually and collectively.

Second, this motion would allow us to take a look at this broader issue of the gig economy from a particular perspective. My motion calls for an examination of the future of workers in the gig economy. There have been many studies about the future of work in the gig economy, but not as much attention to looking at workers and what has been happening as the development and revolutionary evolution of the gig economy has been taking place. Things have moved so much faster than our thoughts of labour standards, protections, provisions and supports, even pensions and benefits and other sorts of things.

The structure of how all of our other laws interact and intersect with employment and jobs has really been left behind. We need to look at that in this country. I would say there are some initiatives that are being started in particular provinces, but more particularly in Europe, the United States and in some other jurisdictions there are advances being made that are ahead of us in our considerations of this issue here.

At the end of the day, we want a strong economy for all of us, and we want to ensure that we are building jobs, promoting the existence of quality jobs and a quantity of jobs that builds a strong Canada.

As I alluded to, this has been an issue that has been quickly developing over the last number of years. Contained within the development of the gig economy has been an acceleration of those who are working in precarious situations. I remember that for years we have had discussions about part-time temporary proliferation of those kinds of jobs, what that means to security of employment and security of attaining economic sustainability in our own lives and for our country.

As those conditions have accelerated, it brings to mind for me, as a former active trade unionist, the role that unions played for many years. There has certainly been a decline in that over the last few decades, yet we see enshrined in our Canadian Charter of Rights the right of freedom of association. Yet some of these jobs that are now created in the gig economy have certain classifications, and the way in which they have been constructed leaves people out of that opportunity, out of having the right to freedom of association, the right to developing a union and joining a union. In my view, the union movement has contributed to the strength of our economy. I am not purporting all jobs should be unionized jobs, but the loss of unionized jobs in our economy has meant worsening conditions for individuals and overall.

These changes have been happening very quickly. We have situations where we can see, in large employers in particular, developments at different speeds of classifying employees in this realm of gig workers as contractors, independent, not employees. That’s created by differences in capabilities of adapting the job to technology-based, digital-based work. It is also, the size of companies. We’re seeing an unfair playing field between companies in certain situations that have been developed here as well.

I can give you a quick example, but this is by no means the only example, of the ride hailing industries like Uber and Lyft. I think of all the conversations I have in Ottawa going from the airport and back and to other places by taxi, and hearing the lament of drivers in the taxi industry about what has happened, how that industry has been undercut and how the competitive landscape has moved not in a positive way, not in a way that creates more opportunities, but in a way that undermines the ability to earn a decent living and provide for families and have sustainability in that.

This shift, which I said has been under way for quite some time and has been happening at a very rapid speed, has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, as many things have been, and as we heard in a number of speeches tonight dealing with very different subject matters. This is the condition we are living in, and we are rising to speak to these issues today.

Many people have lost their jobs, particularly in precarious employment. That has resulted in economic hardship for those individuals and their families, and as a spin-on effect for communities and our country. Many have turned to gig work as the only potential option for them as their employment opportunities have shut down with the impact of the pandemic. There’s an instability that has been created in more and more people’s lives as they’ve been pushed to even less stable and less secure work. Many of us find that truly frightening as we look around.

Those who were already in precarious work have also been among the hardest hit during this pandemic. In some cases, the gig that they had in this gig economy has collapsed, and therefore their access to income has collapsed. As we know, within our Parliament, our government and with the support of the parties in the House of Commons and the Senate as a chamber, we have moved emergency legislation to try and provide benefits and supports and create those lifelines of sustainability for people. What we do see, however, is that for those workers in the gig economy, many of these supports and protections are not available. For example, those workers do not have access, in most situations, to protections such as sick leave. Just think about that for a moment. In this pandemic, when getting sick and spreading the sickness is the main challenge facing us right now, that we’re trying to do all that we can to control and flatten the curve, it makes no sense that there is not access to some protections and supports for people who are sick and isolating as a result of that or who are isolating as a result of being a caregiver to someone who is sick.

We also know that a disproportionate number of these workers are women, immigrants, Indigenous people and people of colour. In that sense, the benefit structures that we put in place on this emergency basis are leaving behind, once again, a broad swath of people, and it’s unfortunate that it is, in most cases, the most vulnerable in our society and our economy. So the protections that we have rolled out, the most recent being the Canada Emergency Benefit, is only available to employees. In most cases, workers in the gig economy are not classified as employees. They’re classified — I would argue, in most situations, incorrectly — by their employers as contract workers, so they’re not getting the Canada Recovery Benefit. They don’t have access to some of the same provisions and protections that are available for other workers, other employees in our society. So we see the people who are already being squeezed feeling this new pinch the greatest.

Many of them have been labelled essential. When you think about the use of that word, we mean they’re core to our economy, our health and well-being, our supply chains, our food, our health care, our care for elderly people in long-term care facilities. More and more, these jobs are being hived off into the classification of non-employee and, therefore, leaving people without access to their benefits.

We need to question the direction in which we’re going, not just the pandemic-based experience of this but in general. The pandemic has brought to light more clearly, in a more focused and more urgent way than what we may have been seeing, but the challenge remains an ongoing challenge that we must strive to address.

I think that the issue of a Senate committee study, which affords us the opportunity to look longer term down the road, to consider what is happening in other jurisdictions and to look at what potential steps could be taken, is a really important vehicle and a really important contribution that our chamber can make to this debate, particularly, obviously, in Canada, but this is a debate that is going on around the world.

We’re seeing a domino of court cases, some here in Canada, some in the U.S. and some in European and/or Scandinavian countries, which have overturned employer classifications of these gig workers as contractors, or deemed the classification to be incorrect and inappropriate, and also have either established those workers involved in those lawsuits with their status as employees, or to have indicated that they are employees who should be able to access a certain range of benefits, and that the range of benefits or protections need to be defined.

There was a time in which the discussion of these issues seemed to be heading towards saying, “stem the tide of the creation of the gig economy.” Personally, I don’t see that as a viable and/or as a useful and productive way to go. I think it is to question what new work that has been created and has been designed and has been constructed outside of our existing standards of protection and provision of benefits that we have deemed as a country and as a society, within our economy, to be appropriate. How do we ensure that some of those professions extend to this new kind of work?

The study that I am proposing would look at a number of things. Of course, it’s up to the committee themselves to describe the work plan, but I think it would be helpful to look at gathering data on precarious work of all the natures that are involved in the new gig economy, studying the impact of technology on jobs and assessing Canadians’ working conditions, particularly this growing class of Canadian workers.

I also think it’s important to identify the knowledge gaps we have. The first StatCan study of this was released last year. It’s based on older tax filer information and there are all sorts of gaps in that. I think the Senate could do a really important piece of work to identify those gaps and to look to make recommendations about how that data can be collected and how it can be reported in a useful way for us and for the government.

The Hon. the Speaker
[18:43]

Excuse me, Senator Lankin, for interrupting you, but your time has expired. There are a couple of senators indicating they would like to ask a question. Are you asking for leave for five more minutes?

Senator Lankin
[18:43]

Yes.

The Hon. the Speaker
[18:43]

Any senator opposed to leave will say “nay.” Leave is granted.

Senator Lankin
[18:43]

In that knowledge gathering, we would be able to look at the precedents in other countries that have developed in the court cases and the court settlements that have taken place and we can take a look at the legislative or policy recommendations that are required to provide these kinds of protections and provisions.

Colleagues, I hope that I can count on you. Wherever our ideologies lay on the spectrum, I think we all have important perspectives we can bring to bear on this discussion. I have reached out to groups like the chambers of commerce and others and I’m hoping that we would be able to have the committee call a broad range of views and help us develop well-grounded, evidence-based recommendations. I’m happy to answer questions as there is time.

The Hon. the Speaker
[18:44]

Senator Bellemare, do you have a question?

Hon. Diane Bellemare
[18:44]

Yes. Senator Lankin, in your motion, you proposed that the committee submit its report at the end of September 2022. Don’t you think that’s a bit late considering that many of the recommendations will have to do with employment insurance?

Senator Lankin
[18:45]

Yes, it is.

Senator Bellemare
[18:45]

That being the case, could you maybe propose a special committee? Wouldn’t that be better than choosing the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, which usually has a number of bills to study?

Senator Lankin
[18:45]

The fact that they have many bills to study is one of the reasons I proposed a long time frame. That is simply an outside date. We would hope that they would report earlier than that.

I did not propose a special committee because I believe that there is so much work on the plate of the Senate, and has been, and that those special committees that get created take up additional time beyond the ongoing committee time. There has been a reluctance in the past on the part of some senators and some groups in the chamber to support the idea of special committees — not all the time, but that has occurred. So I went the route of referring it to the Social Affairs Committee and giving it a long time frame knowing there would be times where they would have to be dealing with government priorities first.

[18:46]

Thank you, Senator Lankin, for putting this motion forward again. I want to speak to the precarious work of being an entrepreneur, and ask if you see entrepreneurs and small business owners as falling under this work that you’re proposing as well. They are the ultimate precarious workers: they take on not just the risk of their jobs, but the jobs of many others, and of maintaining a business, and often, really, with no fallback position whatsoever. Can you please tell me what your thoughts are on that?

Senator Lankin
[18:47]

Thank you, Senator Deacon, for that question. Briefly, let me say that I think that has to be looked at. In many of those situations, those are self-employed people or small businesses that are incorporated. There are different regimes and protections there than there are for precarious workers who are not incorporated, and I think it is a question to be examined by the committee. I don’t have a definitive answer for you at this point in time, but I agree with you around the issue of precariousness.

Hon. Kim Pate
[18:48]

Honourable senators, I rise today in support of Motion No. 27, and I thank Senator Lankin for your career-long dedication to upholding the rights of workers, and your leadership in urging this chamber to proactively consider and pursue policies to ensure the social and economic well-being of workers, and by extension their and our communities.

When this motion was first introduced last winter, most of us could not have imagined the impact that COVID-19 would have on the working lives of Canadians. Although this pandemic was unprecedented, the challenges that those who are employed, and who want to be employed, are facing today are not. The issues exposed are ones that have existed for some time and will continue once current emergencies subside.

The pandemic has brought these realities into sharp relief.

Too many Canadians have difficulty accessing paid work that is appropriate to their skill set; offers adequate benefits, stability and job security; and pays a liveable wage. Many of the types of jobs that were being created prior to the pandemic were in the undervalued and severely underpaid service industries. Invisible to those oblivious to the realities of subsistence wages for the recipients is the cruel Catch-22 this pandemic has exposed: too many people simply cannot afford to take the jobs available.

In most neighbourhoods across Canada, a single person working minimum wage cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment. In the past three years, the number of adults in Ontario with employment income who needed to use food banks to ensure that they and their kids did not go hungry increased by 27%. Half of all of those currently under the poverty line are working but not earning enough to get by. The result? The majority of Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque or, if they have the good fortune of the benevolent bankers I did when I was a single mom working for a non-profit, they might have the only slightly greater privilege of living overdraft to overdraft.

The constant stress and risk of such circumstances means that the kind of emergency that most of us, unfortunately, face from time to time from an accident or illness to housing, furnace, flood or some other crisis, to job loss or sudden care responsibilities at home, can bring a tenuously balanced financial situation crashing down like a house of cards. Teetering financial stability is tipped further off balance by jobs that do not ensure access to benefits, such as paid leave, pharmacare, mental health care and dental care, Employment Insurance and pensions, all of which are necessary to support people as they negotiate the unforeseen, from personal emergencies to global pandemics.

Women, Indigenous peoples, Black Canadians and people of colour and undocumented migrant workers are overrepresented in these kinds of precarious situations. Unstable labour and the gig economy reinforce and worsen systemic racism and colonialism by excluding people from the kinds of fair wages and benefits designed to ensure that people’s well-being increases as the economy’s does.

Indeed, 2018 data from Ontario demonstrated that despite seven years of consistent economic expansion, instead of permanent positions, employers have been creating temporary positions that do not provide comparable benefits, a reality that, as we have witnessed first-hand, not only increases economic instability but also increases economic inequality.

This trend is having devastating impacts upon many. If we look at youth — our future — we see that in 2018, only 44% of those born between 1982 and 1997 had jobs that were full-time, secure and with some benefits. Another 32% were precariously employed. Three out of four post-secondary students have reported that COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on their financial situation.

This morning, student union representatives reminded me that improving accessibility and affordability of education will help build a stronger economy and better future for all. Decisions we have made and those we make today will define the future of communities and determine whether we will actually address issues of systemic inequality, in particular for those who are most economically marginalized, all the more so where such discriminatory realities are exponentially magnified by race, gender and ability.

COVID-19 has made painfully clear that the workers we recognize as essential, including personal support workers, cleaners, grocery store employees and delivery people are too often undervalued, underpaid and lack job security and benefits. Despite dire health risks, while those of us supported by employers enjoy the opportunities to practise safer health protections afforded by having homes and opportunities to work from them, too many in precarious work did not have the privilege of working from home.

Not only that, most stepped up, often at significant personal risk, and kept working their jobs, sometimes for wages so inadequate that they could have been earning the same or more if they were eligible for the CERB, putting themselves at risk for the benefit of their friends, their neighbours and their communities. For too many, exposing themselves to the risk of COVID was not a choice. It was an economic necessity and a question of survival. This is unacceptable in a country like ours that has long recognized that health should not depend on wealth.

The pandemic quickly underscored the links between the issues raised by Senator Lankin’s work on the future of workers and guaranteed livable or basic income. Decades of evisceration of health care, economic and social services, not to mention the impact of systemic discrimination, especially racism, sexism and ableism, meant that those with the least disproportionately bore the health and social consequences of COVID-19.

As you know, honourable colleagues, those most marginalized are continuing to fall through the cracks of the government’s emergency income supports. When we saw this at the beginning of the pandemic, 50 of us joined together to call on the government to evolve the CERB into a more accessible guaranteed livable income. Such a measure would provide income transfers to sustain all Canadians in their times of need, whether or not they were previously engaged in paid work. The CERB and a guaranteed livable income have in common that they are both far-too-rare examples of economic policies that recognize the vital importance of lifting and keeping people out of poverty in order to maintain a healthy economy.

In order to function successfully, a guaranteed livable basic income must be complemented by labour and employment measures adequate to ensure it is not merely used to subsidize or top up low wages. The same can be said for other vital services that workers and all Canadians need to ensure their health and well-being, including education, comprehensive health care, child care, accessible and affordable housing and adequate supports for those living with disabilities. Anything less could merely result in the sanctioning of employers paying non-living wages and precarious working conditions and inadequate benefits. Trying to use a guaranteed livable income to replace any of those rights and obligations that exist between workers and employers will not achieve the goal of enhancing equality and lifting people out of poverty. It will only perpetuate the status quo.

Senator Lankin’s motion is an opportunity to examine vital measures that can work hand-in-hand with a guaranteed livable income. I hope it will also spark further conversation and consideration of the ways in which a guaranteed livable income might function, supported by robust labour and employment measures, to address some of the challenges associated with the impact of precarious labour. It could create time and space to search for a suitable job in one’s field; to work one job instead of two or three; to have more time to care for family or tend to personal obligations; to take time to pursue education in order to access more stable, more fulfilling or higher paying opportunities; and to retrain following job losses.

A guaranteed livable income could also help ensure that workers aren’t trapped in poorly paid, exploitative, unsafe or discriminatory working conditions due to a lack of other options. It could also provide Canadians with a more realistic opportunity to exercise their rights without having to worry about being unable to keep a roof over their heads or put food on the table.

Workers with disabilities in particular have reported that they seldom demand enforcement of their rights in the workplace because they are worried about how an employer might react. A guaranteed livable income could help redress some of the power imbalances that exist between workers and employers when they represent sole sources of livelihood.

A guaranteed livable income could help Canadians take risks and leaps forward in ways that enrich the economy and society, choices like opting to launch businesses that create new jobs.

Communities could also decide to advocate for health and environmental standards with less fear of the consequences for the local economy of an employer choosing to leave in response.

It could also help ease stress and burdens for other workers, including health care workers, personal support workers and social workers who too often feel impotent, particularly when they realize the needs of their patients and clients are rooted in systemic experiences of poverty rather than the services they are trained to provide. Those whose work involves administering social assistance are essentially required to judge eligibility and police adherence to conditions as they churn through their duties without being afforded the time or tools to meaningfully assist people. A guaranteed livable basic income would relieve them of such functions and allow them opportunities to provide meaningful assistance and support.

It could allow us to redress harmful and discriminatory stereotypes about the reasons individuals may not engage in paid work. Pilot projects have demonstrated that barriers to work are often economic.

People cannot cover the cost of transportation to interviews or work, appropriate clothing or tools for the job, lunches during work hours, child care. The list, honourable colleagues, is unfortunately very long.

For too many on social assistance, the spectre of losing pharmacare benefits and income clawbacks can outweigh the benefits of employment where income is inadequate to raise an individual above the poverty line. Contrary to predictions that participants in the Ontario Basic Income Pilot would stop working, most, consistent with the data from other pilots, continued to work. Indeed, many moved to higher paying and more secure jobs, noting improved mental and general health, freedom from stigma and constant surveillance, respite from stress over food and housing and a feeling of restored dignity.

GLI could also better acknowledge unpaid work that is essential to economies and communities, from care for loved ones, for children and the elderly or disabled, to volunteer work to non-traditional and environmentally regenerative options. It would acknowledge the socially necessary and personally fulfilling aspects of work while also recognizing that human beings and their families do not deserve to starve or die of exposure because decent jobs are not available to them in their time of need.

I hope that through Senator Lankin’s motion and through further work on guaranteed livable income we can engage in the necessary examinations to determine how best to evolve our thinking and our actions to promote the overall well-being of workers, paid and unpaid, and all Canadians. Meegwetch. Thank you, honourable colleagues.