Volume 51, Issue 2: Spring 2017

Unions are critical in youth fight against precarity

Photo from RankandFile.ca

“It is the instability, not knowing how many hours I would get in a week,” says Samuelm, who’s quoted in a 2015 report by the Workers’ Action Centre entitled Still Working on the Edge: Building Decent Jobs from the Ground Up.

“Wages are low…. We get about $11 or $12. The number of hours you get are all over the place. There is no fixed number. It’s impossible to plan your life.”

On Dec. 5, 2016, Statistics Canada released a report entitled Perspectives on the Youth Labour Market in Canada, 1976 to 2015. Its findings were probably unsurprising for many who have kept up with the trends: young workers are having a harder time finding permanent and full-time work. And the jobs they are getting are earning them lower wages.

TD Economics released a similar report entitled Canada’s Part-Time Conundrum on Jan. 4, 2016, looking at the trend toward part-time jobs for all workers. In it the authors noted that, despite there being seven years in a row with job growth, it has primarily been in part-time positions and the service industry. “Underpinning this move toward part-time work appears to be changes in the industrial composition of employment,” the report says. “A longer term shift has been underway from goods-production towards services, with the latter generating a greater share of part-time positions.”

Yet another recent study echoes the two previous ones. Published by the Canadian Labour Congress in August of 2016, Diving Without a Parachute: Young Canadians Versus a Precarious Economy is worth noting. “Young workers are four times more likely to work part time than older workers,” the report says. “Some do so by choice, but over 230,000 young workers would rather work full-time hours but business conditions don’t allow for it or they simply couldn’t find full-time work.”

Diving Without a Parachute says that “more than half of young people now work in the service sector.” The report also notes that “while over half of young workers work in sales and service, only 3.5 per cent of young workers in the accommodation and food services sector are covered by a union.” A May 2016 report, entitled Part-time, Poorly Paid, Unprotected: Experiences of precarious work in Retail, Food Service, & Hospitality in Victoria, B.C. published by the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group with assistance from the Retail Action Network, situates that in a broader trend for retail workers. “While 31.5 per cent of workers in B.C. belong to a union,” the report says, “this provincial average is more than double the percentage of unionized retail workers.”

With unions providing workers a greater measure of stability, better wages, and more extensive benefits (or any at all), the fact that so few young workers in retail are unionized only deepens their precarity.

In the 2014 book, Revolutionizing Retail: Workers, Political Action, and Social Change, by Kendra Coulter, a labour studies professor at Brock University, precarity is shown to be a consistent part of the retail sector. This is especially concerning considering that Coulter, drawing on a 2011 Statistics Canada report, says that the industry employs one-in-10 Canadian workers.

Retail workers are generally low-wage, often earning barely above minimum wage. They have to deal with schedules published at the last minute, with on-call scheduling, where a worker arrives to their workplace at a scheduled time to find out only once there if they’ll be working or not. There are also open-ended shifts, where the end time is undetermined. They rarely get benefits, paid sick days, or parental leave.

So what can be done? It looks like the most consistent way to address and challenge precarity for precarious workers is unionization.

When 12,000 Loblaws workers in Ontario faced unpredictable shift scheduling practices and were primarily given part-time work, UFCW 1000A bargained a contract that made scheduling significantly better, giving workers advance notice of their schedules. Being part of a union proved incredibly important for those workers.

But are established unions working hard enough to organize more precarious, low-wage workers? Many are criticized for wilting at the — admittedly great — challenge. But now, considering just how bad things are getting for these workers, the responsibility of the labour movement towards the most precarious and exploited is greater than ever.

Daniel Tseghay is a CD columnist and a reporter for Rankandfile.ca. He is based in Vancouver.