Decent work needs a bolder vision

We don’t need a hurried recoverywe need a comprehensive overhaul

by Paul Taylor
Originally published in Now Magazine June 6, 2021

We’re at a baffling stage of the pandemic. Front line workers are continuing to risk their lives, while millions of Canadians are still navigating unemployment or precarious work. Yet pandemic profiteering by large corporations is rampant and the most recent federal budget offers just a meagre wage increase to a limited number of federal employees. 

In the rush to “return to normal,” elected officials are trying to brush some harsh inequities under the rug, but we absolutely cannot. Whether we admit it or not, COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the nature of work. Women, disabled people, racialized people, temporary foreign workers, and workers with less education have all lost work at staggering rates, all while some corporations have ramped up efforts to consolidate power and increase profits on the backs of low wage, gig economy and precariously employed workers.

In 2016, fewer than half of the jobs in Canada were full-time, permanent positions, and in 2019, 48% of Canadians reported being $200 or less away each month from financial insolvency. Post-pandemic, we cannot meaningfully address these widening gaps without a bold vision for a new path forward, one that is focused on addressing the systemic inequities that have been laid bare for us all to see. If we don’t do it now, when will we? The challenges posed by the looming threats of climate change and future pandemics are real, especially for those that have already been made vulnerable.

Here’s where I think we should be focusing some of our collective energies and resources on.

Liveable wages for all.

After years of stalling, the federal government has finally committed to implementing a $15 per hour minimum wage for the 109,000 federally employed workers who qualify. This move is too little too late, and despite the increase, many of these workers will continue to earn wages that are unlivable. 

In one of the richest countries in the world, workers should be able to expect liveable wages. We cannot expect employers to provide this voluntarily. As a nonprofit leader, I’m glad that FoodShare is a living wage employer, but I really wish that it didn’t have to depend on employers to opt-in to do what’s right. It’s our governments to whom we are connected via the social contract. Our governments (predominantly at the provincial and territorial level, but also federally) have the power to prevent employers from paying poverty wages.

Supporting workers—beyond compensation.

Whether it’s the Ontario government forcing striking teachers back to work in 2015, or the federal government’s Bill C-29 that forced striking dock workers back to work, there are too many instances of politicians limiting the power of unionized workers to assert their collective rights.

Canada’s rate of unionization has dropped from 37% in 1981 to 30% in 2019—a particularly alarming statistic in our current environment of corporate concentration. Companies like Amazon and Walmart are profiteering off of this pandemic, while reports of significant labour violations continue. I’ve long thought that our politicians decide who wins in the economy and then those who win in the economy decide who the politicians will be. Imagine how things would change if more workers could actually meet their basic needs and be able to be more involved in their communities or even run for elected office.

Centre not just workers, but the entire community.

All the major political parties have signalled a commitment to investing in public infrastructure to spur a post-COVID economic recovery. But who will benefit most from these projects? A few select mega construction firms, or the people who’ve been most impacted by long standing inequities?

Community Benefits Agreements are inclusive, collaborative and legally binding mechanisms that can ensure that publicly-funded development projects serve goals to equity, poverty reduction, environmental sustainability and local economic development. Driven by desires of the communities themselves, these benefits might include equitable hiring practices, funding for training, neighbourhood improvements, or support for social enterprises. They represent a hopeful alternative to our usual practices of providing public contracts to the lowest possible bidder. 

Expand our social services.

Canada currently ranks 25th out of 37 OECD countries in public spending on social services as a share of GDP (which is even below the United States). As we recover from the pandemic, we have a bold opportunity to build effective social programs so that we no longer have people fall through the cracks as a result of policy neglect and systemic oppression.

What if we emerged from the pandemic with a suite of social programs that provide the types of support that allow us all to thrive in our communities?

Canada currently has a semi-functioning sick care system. What if we had an actual health care system? With investments and public policies that guarantee liveable incomes for all (including those unable to work), access to healthy food, the medicine that we need, affordable housing, dental care, a national student nutrition program, free tuition and mental health care, we could build an actual health care system—and an economy—that’s truly centred on health, equity, and our collective prosperity.

Balance the scales.

I’ve always found it strange when I’m asked how Canada can afford to pay for programs that will improve the health and wellbeing of its residents. The funds are right there in front of us—they’ve been generated by workers and sit, largely untaxed, in the bank accounts of our nation’s most affluent. The top 1% of earners in Canada pocketed 37% of the country’s total income growth between 1981 and 2010. Just a few decades ago, Canada’s highest tax rate was 43%. Now, it’s 33%. When the economy does well it needs to benefit us all, not just those who already have the most money and power.

If we want to invest in the long-term health of our economy, we’ll need to expand our notion of decent work and overcome our fear of challenging corporate power. Increasing wages, while important, is just a part of the puzzle. What we need is a comprehensive overhaul that puts people and planet first, now and into the future.