This isn’t your grandparents’ job market

One thing is clear: It's not your grandparents' labour market, says Labour Studies Professor Wayne Lewchuk (JDH picture)

Economic upheaval has always shaped labour policy changes, Wayne Lewchuk says. 'And now we’re in the midst of rethinking how we manage society. One thing is clear: This isn’t your grandparents’ labour market.'

If you’ve heard the term “precarious employment” you’re familiar with Wayne Lewchuk’s work.

Lewchuk, the LIUNA Enrico Henry Mancinelli Professor of Global Labour Studies, has studied the rapid rise in job insecurity and instability in Canada over the past decade, and is the co-founder of the Poverty and Economic Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) project, a research partnership with United Way Greater Toronto.

Lewchuk is also is helping to organize the 2018 North America Basic Income Guarantee Congress, being held at McMaster May 24 through May 27.

“There’s a lot of interest in basic income around the globe, and the conference gives people from around the world an opportunity to talk about what works and what doesn’t, as labour markets everywhere change,” Lewchuk says.

He is part of a panel evaluating Ontario’s three-year Basic Income Pilot project, under which adults living in poverty will receive a guaranteed basic income every month. Hamilton is one of the three sites where Ontario is testing the pilot.

“The hope is that by giving people security, their health will improve and their families will experience more stability,” Lewchuk says.

It’s important to clarify that basic income guarantees aren’t the same as welfare, Lewchuk notes. “Welfare is conditional and it can be dehumanizing,” he says. “Basic income is unconditional and the hope is that a sense of security allows people to make decisions that are better for them.”

There is a much earlier Canadian precedent for this kind of project: In the 1970s, Manitoba offered a basic income to families below the poverty level in the farming community of Dauphin. The plan was to compare their health to that of people in other communities, who did not receive the basic income amounts.

When the provincial government changed, the Dauphin project was shut down, and its findings were lost until health researcher Evelyn Forget dug up the files a few years ago.

Forget found that basic income recipients in Dauphin experienced better health outcomes and needed fewer hospital visits than their peers in other communities, Lewchuk says.

“Teens tended to stay in school longer,” possibly because there was less financial pressure to leave school and find a job. “Some people — mostly women — reduced time in the labour market to stay home with their families, but economically, for the vast majority, things were not very different, except for the positive implications for health and social well-being.”

A lot has changed in the labour market in the decades since the Dauphin experiment, and Lewchuk has watched those changes from up close.

When he came to McMaster in 1983 — the beginning of the long, slow decline of industry in Ontario — Lewchuk began studying the health of industrial workers. Over the decades, he was perfectly placed to track how the labour market changed, as thousands of once-stable and secure jobs in the auto industry and steel mills disappeared with technological and economic change.

Lewchuk watched as freelance, part-time and contract employment became increasingly common.

“My father started a new job when he was 26, a week after he got back from his honeymoon, and that is the job he retired from,” Lewchuk says. “It’s all very different now. We have people driving for Uber and doing micro-tasks they find on online recruitment sites like Mechanical Turk.”

It’s taking a toll on workers, Lewchuk notes, quickly listing some of the problems precarious employment creates.

• A lack of job or income security makes it harder for workers to form relationships or settle in one spot, let alone buy a house, he explains.
• Many precarious jobs don’t give workers benefits, which means their health suffers.
• “If you have children, they have fewer opportunities because you’re less likely to sign them up for music or sports lessons — these things cost money and a time may come when you don’t have work.”
• It’s hard to acquire the qualifications workers need for today’s job market as well, he notes. “The task of building worker capital — through training and advancement — used to be the employer’s,” Lewchuk says. “You would get a job and work your way up to middle management.” But now the burden of training and building qualifications has passed to the workers.

In 2010, Lewchuk and his colleagues partnered with United Way Greater Toronto, using a SSHRC grant to create PEPSO. The organization’s third report is due out in June, examining what happens when the labour market improves.

“In the six years from 2011 to 2017, the economy saw a robust expansion in employment,” Lewchuk says. “Our report looks at who gets the new jobs. And is there a difference based on gender, race and background?”

An economic historian, Lewchuk notes that economic upheaval has always driven changes in labour policy. When society shifted toward a more industrial and less agricultural model, it brought new policies on child labour and safe work. In the 20th century, after the Great Depression, economic policy brought in better pension plans and protections for workers.

A lot of our current economic and social measures created to help workers date back to the 1960s or ’70s, Lewchuk notes. Things like CPP and laws to protect workers were crucial parts of the labour movement, but these institutions haven’t kept pace with changes to the labour market or technology.

“And now we’re in the midst of rethinking how we manage society,” Lewchuk says. “What we have is not working. We need to find a solution and it’s different for every economy, but one thing is clear: This isn’t your grandparents’ labour market.”

Some people think technology and automation will eventually replace human labour altogether. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Lewchuk says. “I think it’d be fantastic to have machinery doing a lot of the things we do, so we could focus on the things that we let fall by the wayside right now: Being good to each other; creating art; spending time with our families.

“We could use it as an opportunity to discover the potential of humans. But we have to figure out how to pay for it.”

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