Canada’s job market is a virtual hotbed of contradictions.
On the one hand, employers and their associations claim there is a labour shortage. Yet 1.3 million workers are officially unemployed and tens of thousands of Canadians have either given up looking for work or are underemployed in contract and precarious jobs.
You’d think that markets — if they worked the way we are told — would respond to so-called labour shortages in a variety of positive ways, including improvement in full-time decent work with good wages and benefits attached to them as a recruitment incentive. You would think overall job quality would be improving. You’d think Canada would be overflowing with good jobs.
Instead, temporary jobs are growing twice as fast as permanent jobs and part-time jobs are now one in five in the country, the highest percentage on record.
CIBC World Markets noted in June of this year that its Canadian job quality index has been demonstrating a clear downward trend, 14 per cent lower than the 1980s.
Part of this has been attributed to faster growth in part-time versus full-time work with a 56 per cent versus 39 per cent increase since the 1980s, as well as higher growth in mid-to-low-wage industries compared to higher-paying sectors. Part-time and self-employed workers make up about 30 per cent of total Canadian employment today. In addition, Canada has also lost a disproportionate number of high-paid jobs, including in the high-tech and manufacturing sectors.
Another labour shortage contradiction: unpaid internships which are fast becoming the norm for students, graduates and young workers across the country.
Unpaid internships are permitted in some provinces as a result of lax employment standards and allow employers to avail of free labour. Some argue that unpaid internships provide necessary on-the-job experience for young people. Frankly that is a very slippery slope.
In a country with a so-called labour shortage, you’d think employers would be tripping over themselves to attract young people into their workplaces. Instead the opposite is occurring: employers are tripping over themselves to get to the front of the line to sign up unpaid interns.
A story in The Toronto Star last week highlighted just how employers are availing of unpaid internship loopholes in Ontario’s employment laws.
There is a disconnect — a glaring contradiction of so-called labour shortages versus seemingly growth in unpaid work. Sort of throws the so-called principles of the markets right out the window.
Then there is the Harper government’s temporary foreign worker program changed to suit employers’ complaints about labour shortages. Instead it is being used, or rather abused, to suppress wages in both low and high-skilled sectors of the economy. And now the program has been used to displace Canadian workers, including nearly 300
pipefitters on a job site in the Alberta oil sands in the last few weeks.
The story there is of a sub-
contractor laying off Canadian tradespeople and hiring temporary foreign workers at cheaper wages.
This is not unlike the infamous case at one of Canada’s biggest banks where Canadian workers were told to train in their temporary foreign worker replacements.
That followed reports of a mine in British Columbia that wanted to hire Chinese workers because these workers will work for lower wages.
The foreign worker program is supposed to be used as a last resort, not what it has become — a first resort.
The other insidious side of the temporary foreign worker program is that it is being used to undermine Canada’s immigration system.
If Canada needs workers, this problem should be solved with immigration, not temporary fixes that place migrant workers in precarious employment arrangements.
The Harper government’s changes to Canada’s employment insurance system were also a form of wage suppression. They were aimed at forcing unemployed workers to take low-paid jobs no matter their skill, training or education level.
For a labour market that is supposed to be tight — meaning there are supposed to be shortages — there are an awful lot of exploitative behaviours going on.
Throw into the mix the federal government’s decision to raise the eligibility age for Old Age Security to 67, and the message is Canadians need to work longer because the job market needs you.
What the government hasn’t told you is the job market wants you cheap and the government is willing to help.
And the government is assisting with labour market policies that suppress wages.
It can be argued that there is, in some occupations, a skills shortage, but that can be resolved by developing a proper labour market strategy for the country that includes a renewed focus on training and upskilling.
Canada still remains one of the worst Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries when it comes to employer-sponsored training.
The question with all these contradictions in our job market is whether Canada is really experiencing a labour shortage? Or is it merely a wage shortage coupled with a skills gap in some sectors?
They are different things, and the solutions must be different.
But to come up with such solutions, we’d have to deal in facts, data and evidence, and so far the Harper government hasn’t been interested in any of the above.
Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for
Unifor. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Her column returns Nov. 2.