The experiences of many gig workers during the COVID-19 pandemic highlight how much work remains to ensure Canada’s social safety net is broadly inclusive and fair. A range of independent contractors, part-time, self-employed and temporary workers have suddenly been thrust into essential roles as our normal routines have ground to a halt. Delivery drivers, cleaners and grocery store workers have gone from overlooked and underappreciated to critical parts of our pared down way of life.

Yet, the efforts of these workers have been, to date, recognized by their employers only in the form of some time-limited raises and incentives, sick pay for those impacted by COVID-19 and free hand sanitizer. Unable to work from home, and in many cases unable to collectively bargain for higher wages or safer working conditions, these workers are largely reliant on fleeting public scrutiny and their employers’ desperate need for labour to see any slight improvements to wages, benefits and protections.

If we look ahead to a post-pandemic world, it’s easy to imagine a sustained period of economic anxiety and the potential for start-and-stop recoveries as the virus re-emerges periodically. It’s also possible to see the rapid acceleration of recent trends towards corporate concentration, less market competition and the dominance of a handful of digital giants in increasingly less competitive industries. In this environment, it seems probable that part-time, temporary and contingent workers will become an increasingly important asset to firms that are ruthlessly focused on profitability and minimizing long-term commitments to their workforces in an uncertain and staggered economy.

Can public policy help fill the gaps left by market forces for gig workers in such a scenario? Preliminary indications aren’t promising. Most of Canada’s COVID-19 economic mitigation measures to date are still premised on the notion that workers are engaged in standard forms of employment (i.e. full-time work with a single employer). The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the linchpin of federal efforts to help workers, is designed on the assumption that jobs are like a light switch – either ‘on’ or off’. It will not benefit those in the messy middle of those two options – who have lost hours from a job but not their entire income, or those who had multiple gigs but are now only earning income from one.

Even among those who are unemployed, fully a third will not benefit from the CERB or Employment Insurance (EI). The gaps in the EI system for gig workers are well-documented, and the pandemic has shown that regional eligibility thresholds for hours worked and duration of benefits are difficult to justify in a situation where so many need support, urgently.

Wage subsidies, the other key initiative the federal government has deployed to support workers, are, again, designed for workers in traditional employment relationships. Wage subsidies do nothing to benefit independent contractors, the self-employed and those toiling elsewhere in the fissured workplace.

As we enter a future that has come upon us much faster than we anticipated, we must now quickly examine and assess how we can best support gig workers. Long-standing programs like EI must be designed from the ground up with a lens to being more inclusive of non-standard employment relationships. If the CERB does in fact transition to some form of a guaranteed annual income, it must include those workers in the messy middle, and treat financial security as a continuum that doesn’t penalize those earning less pay during certain periods, even if they still are earning some income. Considering a broad suite of social policy transformations, ranging from universal pharmacare to investments in affordable housing will also help mitigate the impacts of market forces on the quality of life of gig workers.

Some specific reforms to labour legislation should also be considered. Governments must update and clarify definitions of “independent contractor” in provincial and federal labour codes to prevent firms from inappropriately divesting themselves of mandated obligations and responsibilities, such as payroll deductions for EI and the Canada Pension Plan. Similarly, exploring options to enhance collective bargaining rights and opportunities for non-standard workers should be a key focus. This would enable governments to step aside and allow employers and their workers to bargain wages, benefits and other issues on a more level playing field.

The scope and magnitude of the challenges facing Canadian governments in the months and years ahead is tremendous. We should ensure that the typically overlooked gig workers who are proving so vital in helping Canada through this crisis are treated fairly and given their due consideration as well. Providing more robust, well-considered, inclusive supports for gig workers will help Canada move forward in a stronger and more resilient manner, and we can’t afford to overlook them again.

 

Sunil Johal chaired the federal Expert Panel on Modern Labour Standards in 2019, and is a Fellow of the Brookfield Institute and Public Policy Forum.

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