Causal workers hurt economy, not help

May 27, 2009

As summer heats up, Northumberland County resident may be getting pretty thirsty for their favourite wine or liquor after workers at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) gave their union a strike mandate last week.

The 6,000 members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSUE) want more permanent jobs, along with a minor wage increase and benefit adjustments.  The LCBO argues the current use of part-time workers gives them flexibility to reduce hours when business is slow and to ramp up when things get busy.

The trouble is causal workers earn about $20,000 per year or $8 and $14 less per hour than their full-time counterparts.

This is a major trend and one that is undermining our economic well-being. Proponents call this a flexible workforce, while opponents use the term precarious employment.

The bitter strike at York University by part-time faculty was over the same issue, where some professors had worked from contract to contract for 15 to 20 years. CBC is another example. Also recent job statistics for Canada show a growing number of people are becoming self-employed, another form of contract work.

Trying to negotiate a union contract during an economic recession is nearly impossible. Most observers express outrage that anyone would remotely consider a salary increase during tough times. The current climate barely allows anyone to complain, as the public takes a “lucky-to-have-a-job” attitude.

But, the use of causal of contract employees creates denigrates workers. This kind of  work has few public benefits, such as pensions. It also means workers do not have extended health care, something an employer might provide. These are jobs with very little security, low wages, a lack of control over working conditions and high risks of poor health.

There are other downsides to this form of employment. It tends to hurt women and young people, as women are viewed as expendable, compared to men. Young people are encouraged to volunteer or provide unpaid labour as a means of gaining experience or exposure, rather than being viewed as exploitation.

Still, it is hard to see through the murky waters. Employers can use economic hard times to transform the workplace with full immunity. Also, self-employment is mythologized as a sign of independence, freedom and great wealth, which can occur, but not as much as people think. And, the public is quick to line up behind those who espouse these changes, as fear and uncertainty cloud judgment on the true damage being done.

Precarious employment is celebrated by Darwinian neo-conservatives, who love to watch workers cannibalize each other as they fight for fewer, lower paying, part-time jobs, while it maximizes profits and return on investment.

Part-time and causal labourers end up costing the economy and taxpayers more in the long run. With very little disposable income, these kinds of workers spend less and make a diminished contribution as consumers, hurting demand for products and services. With less demand, businesses continue to cut full-time jobs or lay off workers, which diminishes spending, etc., etc., etc.

These are also workers who float in and out of the employment insurance system and welfare because they are treated as disposable workers, costing taxpayers more for these programs.

It will be easy to condemn the LCBO union members in the coming days and weeks. But county residents should pause before damning anyone so quickly. Trends towards turning our country into a legion of part-time, casual, seasonal or self-employed workers may seem like a necessity, but could end up hurting all of us far more than we realize now.

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