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Research & Trends

Jim Stanford: ‘Our lives depend so much on … underpaid, undervalued work’

As a result of COVID-19, both the quantity and quality of work in Canada have been severely disrupted. In the long run, to get the most out of our workforce, employers must treat their employees with more respect as human beings and create conditions where they can create stable, happy and fulfilling lives – not just perform the job with maximum productivity for a minimum cost.

There are obvious challenges to rebuilding the workforce. However, in the years ahead, we have to offer more protection to people, especially those in insecure, precarious positions who were already on a tightrope before COVID-19. We’ve got to deliver support to those Canadians who need it the most as part of our reconstruction.

In the video interview below, Jim Stanford, Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work, speaks to CareerWise Editor Lindsay Purchase about decent work, shifting support for unions during COVID-19 and Canada’s economic and workforce recovery. Jim will be presenting at CERIC’s Virtual Cannexus21 conference on the topic of “Building Back Better: How Work Needs to Change for Good After COVID.” Learn more about Cannexus, taking place Jan. 25 & 27 and Feb. 1 & 3, 2021, at cannexus.ceric.ca

Video transcription follows. 

Video transcription:

Lindsay Purchase, CERIC, Lead, Content, Learning and Development: Hi, Jim, thanks so much for joining me today to talk about workforce change and recovery during COVID-19.

Jim Stanford, Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work: My pleasure, Lindsay. Thanks for having me.

Lindsay: So, I’d like to start today by talking about decent work, because that’s obviously been a big area of conversation throughout the pandemic. How do you think about decent work in the context of Canada’s economic and workforce recovery?

Jim: My definition of a decent job is one that treats the worker as a human being rather than just a productive input, and that means recognizing their all-around development and potential. It means understanding that we have to invest in their skills and capacities, but also their well-being. It means we have to understand they have a life, not just a job.

Now in terms of Canada’s recovery from COVID, I think there’s both some challenges and some opportunities related to that big goal. The challenges are obvious, both the quantity of work in Canada has been severely disrupted because of the pandemic, the immediate health restrictions that caused the closure of certain industries. But now, in a way, a harder problem that has kind of morphed into an economy-wide depression or recession that’s going to take, I think, sustained effort to get the quantity of work back to where it should be.

In terms of the quality of work, we’ve also seen a very disproportionate share of the burden born by people who were already in relatively insecure and low paid jobs. They lost a much greater share of the total hours of work that disappeared. On the other hand, professionals and managers and others who were able to take their work home in many cases haven’t lost a dollar or an hour of work time. So it’s very unfair how this catastrophe has affected the groups in our labor market that could least afford it.

Lindsay: Of course, the unions have a role to play in that fight for decent work and against precarious work, and you wrote recently in the Toronto Star about an uptick in union membership in Canada. Do you expect to see unions playing a bigger role going forward?

Jim: I do. I expect that workers are going to be reminded of how important and how valuable it is for them to have the benefits and the protection of a union, that their collective power in negotiating some of these important issues with employers and with governments is enhanced when they join together. That’s the whole idea of unions, and it’s often during a crisis, during hard times that our workers who might’ve thought, “No, I’m okay. I don’t need somebody. I can do this on my own.” Suddenly realized, no, this is exactly when you want someone at your back.

So we have seen an uptick in union density, that is the proportion of workers in Canada who are covered by a union contract. That’s partly because of new union organizing, and we’ve seen that in some areas that face particular challenges as a result of COVID, healthcare, long-term care facilities. Even Starbucks workers trying to unionize because they’re worried about contagion and workplace health and safety and so on.

Another factor is, in a way a negative factor, people who don’t have a union were more likely to lose their jobs during the downturn. And that’s, we’re not celebrating, of course, the fact that a lot of non-union workers lost work. 20% of workers without a union lost their jobs in the first two months of the pandemic, more than twice as fast as union jobs disappeared. And in a way that highlights one of the benefits of union, which is you do have a bit more protection for your job security and employers have to go through more hoops, if you like, and satisfy more conditions before they can get rid of you.

So for all those reasons, I think that the interest in unionization by Canadian workers is going to be enhanced for years to come and with good reason.

Lindsay: I think that’s going to be a really interesting trend to follow. And so looking back a little bit to April, you spoke about the need for a modern martial plan to help with Canada’s pandemic recovery. Now we’re six months in, six, seven months in, we’re seeing some provinces into a second wave. How would you evaluate the federal response so far? And what more would you like to see going forward?

Jim: The first months of the pandemic, we lost three million jobs in Canada. We’ve never seen something like that happen, catastrophic. And then in the months since April up till September, we’ve regained about three-quarters of those jobs, about two and a quarter million jobs came back, which is very good, better than I would’ve thought, frankly. But we are never going to get all the way back without, I think, a sustained commitment to rebuilding full employment, and that will have to be led by government.

I do think this is a fitting analogy to the need for post-war reconstruction at the end of World War II, where we went through obviously a huge catastrophe. We fought and eventually defeated a horrifying enemy. And at the end of it, we said, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do with all those soldiers coming home?” Well, we’re going to have to put people back to work and we’re going to have to rebuild our economy, and we did that with an ambitious plan, frankly, that lasted for the next 15 or 20 years.

We’re going to need something like that, I think, a post-COVID reconstruction plan for Canada’s economy that will be based on very strong and sustained injections of public investment in infrastructure and social infrastructure and expanded in new public services like childcare, which everyone agrees we need a lot more of. Even direct public sector job creation as part of the solution to the unemployment that we’re going to face.

That’s sort of plan, I think, that will be required to get us back to something like full potential and also has the potential to make Canada a better place at the end of it. If we’ve got those improvements in physical and social infrastructure and caring services and economic inclusion, we’ll be better than we were when COVID hit, and that would be a remarkable achievement.

Lindsay: Absolutely. And of course, a large part of what we’ve seen in terms of government actions so far has been channeled through the CERB and other emergency funding programs, and this has raised calls in some sectors for a universal basic income. What are your thoughts about that approach?

Jim: We cannot underestimate how important those federal government income supports have been to allowing Canada’s economy and Canada’s families and households to survive these last few terrible months. Absolutely unprecedented that the federal government could invent completely new social programs, costing tens of billions of dollars and get them out the door within a matter of weeks. This is going to go down in history as just an astounding public policy achievement.

In part, they had to move so quickly because they suddenly realized that our former social welfare safety net, if you like, based on the employment insurance system and other programs just had gaping holes in it that most Canadians would have fallen through in previous years. Unfortunately under half of Canadians who are unemployed could qualify to get any EI benefits at all, that shows you how badly damaged that whole system was by years of restrictions and cutbacks and so on.

The reality is people need support at different times in their life, and we better make sure that it’s there for them. So I think in a way both the political and the financial calculations about income support have changed a lot and I think that we’re going to need to make sure that some of those changes are permanent. I doubt that we’ll move to anything like a full fledged universal basic income program. But I think that the underlying goal of that vision, which is you shouldn’t allow anybody to fall through the cracks and a society as rich as Canada shouldn’t have widespread poverty. I think that vision can be reflected in some of the changes in income security that we’re looking at.

Lindsay: Is there anything else in the work that you’re doing right now, that’s giving you hope for the future?

Jim: Another way that I think that people’s attitudes have been fundamentally changed by the pandemic is how we recognize and appreciate some of the day-to-day almost menial jobs that go on in our economy. Now that’s obviously true with the healthcare workers. Everybody as the pandemic hit was so grateful for the courage and skill of our healthcare workers and grateful for the public health system that we have in Canada, and rightly so.

So we got on our doorsteps and our balconies at 7:00 p.m. and bang the pots in appreciation, and I hope that appreciation continues. But I think there’s other ways in which we recognize that our lives depend so much on the hard work, sometimes gritty, underpaid, undervalued work that lots of people in our society have to do.

It’s through the social license that companies like Loblaws have the right to conduct their business and make their profits. And I think as a society, we have to tell them and the buildings who’ve outsourced cleaners and the private long-term care facilities who have degraded caring aid work and contributed to the contagion and other employers in our society, hang on, this is a new world and you have to treat your workers and everyone else with decency and respect and as full-fledged human beings.

Lindsay: Well, there’s certainly some push and pull in that and it’s hard to say where it will net out right now. But I agree that we’ve definitely seen some positive changes, at least in the way that we’re talking about work and what is essential work, and that’s a little bit of hope for the future.

Jim: I agree. I’m worried about what comes next for all kinds of reasons, but I’m also optimistic that we have in a way learned some lessons that we should have known before and maybe now we’ll put those lessons into practice.

Lindsay: Well, I think that’s a good note to wrap up on today, Jim. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me.

Jim: Thank you, Lindsay. I enjoyed it.

Jim Stanford Author
Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Vancouver, BC, and Sydney, Australia. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economists. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union (formerly the Canadian Auto Workers).
Jim Stanford Author
Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Vancouver, BC, and Sydney, Australia. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economists. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union (formerly the Canadian Auto Workers).
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