The Coming Precarity: Employment in Canada after the Crisis

The immediate impact of Covid-19 on the national employment landscape has been nothing short of catastrophic, with Canada suffering unprecedented job losses over the early months of the crisis. More than a million Canadians lost their jobs in March, and an additional 800,000 had their paid hours reduced by over 50 per cent (Evans 2020). The recently released StatsCan Labour Force Survey (LFS) for April is the first government report to capture a full month’s worth of employment data since the start of the crisis. The April LFS suggests that unemployment has more than doubled since February, having risen to 13 per cent (StatsCan 2020). As staggering as this figure is, it still belies the true scope of the crisis as the official data relies on a draconianly narrow definition of unemployment. When all factors of unemployment are considered, the true rate of unemployment and severe underemployment in April exceeds 30 per cent of the national workforce (Stanford 2020).

These numbers are staggering and are likely to worsen before this crisis reaches its zenith. A crisis of this magnitude will have lasting impacts on the landscape of employment in Canada. Even months from now, as a sense of ‘normalcy’ is regained and employment rates begin to bounce back, the aftershocks of the pandemic-related employment crisis will pose a significant threat to employment structures and the class power of Canadian labour as a whole.

Consideration must be paid to what impact this unprecedented level of unemployment will have on the post-pandemic structure of the Canadian labour market, the strength of unions, and class formations generally. Particular attention must be given to the impact of the crisis on the expansion of non-standard and precarious employment. How will this massive hike in unemployment coupled with the accelerating growth rate of precarious work impact the economic relations of the working class, union power and the Standard Employment Relationship’s (SER) status as the normative mode of employment? For socialists, these questions must be carefully considered while assessing the political topography of the post-pandemic world, as their resolution is likely to play a crucial role in determining the new boundaries of the possible.

The Decline of the Standard Employment Relationship

Since the 1980s the neoliberal economic regime in Canada and the rest of the capitalist heartland have weakened employment securities, allowing for the advent of novel employment relationships defined by heightened levels of social and economic precarity. These emergent forms of employment exist outside of what labour theorists refer to as the Standard Employment Relationship (SER). The SER, understood as full-time, permanent employment for a single employer at their place of business, served as the touchstone of employment in Canada from the 1950s-1970s. Employment trends over the past 40 years, however, have revealed a gradual erosion of the SER in Canada, as labour market deregulation has allowed for variations of non-standard employment situations.

The degradation of SER-style jobs, both quantitatively and as the normative mode of employment, has profound material impacts on the lives of workers just as it played a central role in the development of the post-war welfare state and related labour-related securities. The post-war SER allowed for a certain degree of decommodification of labour. Central to the decommodifying potential of the SER employment contract was the partial decoupling of ‘employment’ from the ‘work task’. While employment was predicated upon the fulfillment of a work task, the legal designation of ‘employee’ conveyed certain protections and rights for the worker (Frade and Darmon 2005, 109). As the SER has been eroded since the 1980s, the distinction between employment and work tasks has become increasingly intangible. Employers have sought to avoid the formal employer-employee relationship and the legal obligations which that entails. This has been made possible by the advent of increasingly flexible forms of employment, including part-time work, zero-hour contracts, staffing through intermediary agencies, and short-term or fixed-duration contracts.

While these novel employment relationships have allowed employers to obfuscate the distinction between employment and work-task, they have also exposed the inadequacies of post-war style labour-related securities. Workers who are employed under these emergent non-standard employment conditions are often not covered under the auspice of the welfare state which uses the SER as its frame of reference for qualifying employment conditions. With the SER in decline, and little to no accompanying overhaul of western welfare-state policy, the growth of non-standard employment has further entrenched the commodification of labour.

These forms of non-standard employment pose new challenges for workers, and for the same reasons have proven beneficial for employers and corporate capital. Jobs that are in non-standard employment scenarios are on average lower paying than similar positions in the SER mold. In addition to lower wages, non-standard employment rarely yields any non-wage compensation such as employer-provided benefits. Workers employed outside of the SER are also more easily disposed of, with little cause or additional compensation required. This affords employers greater flexibility around staffing as well as increased disciplinary powers over their workforce. Workers employed in non-standard positions also face greater challenges related to unionization and collective bargaining. These qualities of non-standard employment, which provide cost-saving and flexibility to employers, result in far greater levels of economic and social precarity for the workers who occupy these positions.

The benefits afforded to employers by avoiding the obligations of the SER are derived directly from the precarity of their workers. Given these benefits to capital, it is unsurprising that the rate of precarious employment in Canada has increased steadily in Canada since the neoliberal turn, as labour market regulations have become increasingly relaxed. In Ontario, non-standard employment grew at an average rate of 2.3 per cent annually between 1997 and 2015, and now comprises nearly 30 per cent of the province’s workforce (Mitchell and Murray 2017, 46). This growth rate of precarious employment is nearly twice as high as SER job growth over the same period (1.2% annually between 1997-2015). By 2015, over 50% of workers in Hamilton and the GTA were employed in non-standard conditions.

Precarious Employment and Post-Crisis Recovery

As David Harvey (2005) contends, the management and manipulation of crisis plays a crucial role in accumulation by dispossession and is a central facet of neoliberal capitalism. Significant periods of economic crisis, therefore, present an opportunity for corporate capital to weaken the structural power of their workers and deepen their degree of commodification. The current unemployment figures will not hold, and employment will begin to bounce back at some point during the post-pandemic economic recovery. However, the recent trends in employment standards discussed above, as well as analysis of the post-2008 recovery, suggests that positive employment figures in the aftermath of the current crisis will be buoyed by a significant expansion of precarious jobs.

This particular character of crisis manipulation was apparent in wake of the 2008 financial collapse. Over the course of the crisis Canada lost 431,000 jobs (McaFree 2013). By September of 2010 all the lost jobs had been replaced, as the Federal government proudly announced. The restoration of lost pre-crisis jobs, however, only occurred on a quantitative rather than qualitative level, as a significant portion of lost SER jobs were replaced by the various forms of precarious employment discussed above. Consequently, one impact of the post-crisis recovery was an unprecedented escalation in the national rate of precarious work. Between 2009 and 2011, Canada saw the greatest increase in temporary jobs since 1997 (StatsCan 2019). The share of Canadian workers participating in the gig economy also saw a historic spike between 2008 and 2009 (Jeon, Liu, and Ostrovsky 2019).

There is every reason to believe that the recovery from the current pandemic-related crisis will yield similar impacts on employment structure, but of a much greater magnitude. The pre-Covid growth rates of precarious employment and SER employment suggest that a significant portion of lost-SER style jobs will not be replaced with comparably secure positions. The current unprecedented levels of unemployment will provide employers with the opportunity to further obfuscate the distinction between ‘employment’ and the work-task. Work-tasks previously carried out by full-time, permanent, sometimes unionized employees, will be reassigned to low-wage workers on flexible (read precarious) contracts.

To date, before the denouement of the crisis, national unemployment has already more than tripled the post-2008 unemployment rate. Even if the replacement rate of SER jobs to non-standard positions occurs at the same rate as in 2009-11, the sheer scale of Covid-related job losses suggests that there will be an unprecedented surge of non-standard work in the post-pandemic labour market.

As unemployment numbers are reduced over the coming months and years, these figures will be reported with great pride by Federal and Provincial leaders. What they will not boast about is the fact that these recovery numbers will likely be inflated by significant employment in non-standard positions. These trends suggest that the coming expansion in part-time work, temporary contracts, zero-hour contracts, intermediary staffing, and bogus self-employment will be even greater than in the aftermath of 2008. The cumulative result will be further degradation of the SER as the normative mode of employment.

Impacts on Post-Pandemic Politics

An expansion of precarious employment to this extent is clearly troubling in its own right. If existing trends hold, then the post-pandemic economic recovery will involve massive numbers of Canadian workers being thrust into increasingly precarious working conditions, marked by heightened levels of social and economic dislocation. Their working lives will increasingly be defined by hyper-commodification, as their non-wage compensation will be reduced to naught, and their access to welfare state labour securities will be blocked by their non-standard employment relationships.

There is, however, another problematic dimension to this crisis which may emerge from this rapid transformation of the employment landscape. Beyond the direct impact that precarious employment has on the economic security and social reproduction of a growing segment of the working class, there is also a significant impact on class consciousness and political cohesion, and consequently, on the post-pandemic strategy of the left.

The increasing scale of precarious employment has led to a significant fracturing of the working class. Guy Standing suggests that as neoliberalization has eroded the SER, welfare state, and related post-war labour-related securities, that the bourgeois-proletariat class binary does not provide a realistic understanding of capitalist class dynamics. The industrial proletariat still exists but is dwindling in size, as many of its former members are increasingly forced into non-standard employment situations causing them to lead increasingly precarious lives. The difference in employment standards for these two groups has led to divergent relationships with the state and the means of production, and as a result vastly different life experiences. In response, Standing suggests the existence of a new ‘class in-the-making’: the precarious proletariat, which he succinctly terms the precariat. (Standing 2011, 10). It is debatable if the precariat constitutes a literal class, Bryan Palmer argues, for instance, that efforts to subcategorize workers, who by definition all fall under the unifying banner of dispossession, is both ahistorical and unproductive (Palmer 2013, 44). It is useful, however, to consider the specific conditions and social relations faced by workers who have fallen out of the protective coverings of the SER.

The growth of a precarious subclass poses a significant strategic challenge to the worker’s movement for two discrete reasons. For one, as discussed above, the non-standard employment relationships which define the working lives of the precariat make it significantly harder for them to organize and join unions. As SER-style jobs, especially those which are currently organized, are replaced by non-standard positions union membership will suffer, and their institutional sway threatens to wane.

Secondly, a crucial quality of the precariat according to Standing, is the lack of a strong work-based identity. The non-standard employment relationship that defines the working lives of the precariat means that “when employed, they are in career-less jobs, without traditions of social memory, a feeling they belong to an occupational community steeped in stable practices, codes of ethics and norms of behaviour, reciprocity and fraternity” (Standing 2011, 12). The insecure contractual positions of the precariat have meant that they lack any sense of a cohesive work-place identity. This is due to the increased prevalence of part-time, short-term employment, offsite work, and work outside of regular hours amongst the precariat relative to their SER counterparts. Consequently, members of the precariat are less likely to feel a part of a solidaristic labour community and lack the social memory and collective ideals which such a sense of belonging entailed in the post-war period. Precariatization has, therefore resulted in the fragmented relationship between the working class and their post-war, labour-centric, political ideals (Varga 2013, 444).

Building Solidarity in the Coming Months

Lacking a collective sense of class, and without the guidance of pro-labour institutions like unions or a prominent worker’s party, the precariat has made for an unreliable political coalition. Their uniquely insecure position makes them amenable to populist signaling, but this is not paired with a particular allegiance to the left. This is reflected in the growing support amongst precarious workers over recent years for right-wing populist movements. Consider the rising profile of Rassemblement National in France, backed by increasing numbers of Fixed Term Contract workers (the most prevalent form of non-standard employment in France), or Trump’s base of support in 2016 amongst the formerly industrial precariat of the American rust-belt.

There are lessons to be learned from the recent political activity of the precariously employed that must be taken into consideration as the left attempts to reimagine the possible in the post-pandemic world. The right has been successful at tapping into the insecurity and anxiety of the precariously employed by speaking directly, although spuriously, to their interests. All the while, mainstream ‘left’ parties like the Democrats or the NDP have drifted to the center, becoming increasingly indistinct from the parties of capital.

Attention must be paid to these trends over the coming months and years, to ensure that workers who fall into precarious employment are not left behind. Greater effort than ever must be put into organizing workers in non-standard employment relationships. It will not be easy. A month ago, the unionization of Foodora couriers would have been a shining example of organizing around precarious employment. The recent announcement that the food delivery service, which relies on bogus self-employment to compose its workforce, would be withdrawing from Canada has served as a stark reminder that the mobility of capital and the related threat of capital flight remains a significant roadblock to advancement of the working class. There will be greater need than ever for instruments of solidarity and organizing to countervail the structural power of capital. Unions, locally elected labour market boards, worker’s centers, and other forms of community solidarity networks will be crucial in combating the coming the precarity.

The current political moment is marked by great uncertainty. Governments in capitalist states, Canada included, have shown a willingness to engage in extreme deficit spending to meet a certain level of human need. This represents a dramatic break from neoliberal orthodoxy, and it is unclear at this moment how capital and its affiliate parties will respond, although history suggests the imposition of severe austerity measures. All the while, the crisis at hand has laid bare the fault-lines of class which define the neoliberal economy. The eagerness of businesses to reopen has underscored for the workers that their boss’s interests are not their own. While the uncertainty of the moment has bred anxiety on both sides of the political divide, it has also made this a moment for the reimagining of the possible. The boundaries of the possible, however, will not be changed in favour of working people if the questions addressed here are not considered. Those who are already employed precariously, and those who are likely to be absorbed into the ranks of the precariat in the coming months must not be left behind. •

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Bruce Kecskes is a Toronto-based writer and researcher concerned with issues pertaining to labour and political economy.