Two Ways To Make Jobs Better and Reduce Poverty


“If you’re going to look at poverty, you absolutely have to look at peoples’ work.” So began the Social Planning Council for Cambridge and North Dumfries 10th Annual Poverty Symposium.

Sounds simple, and obvious, and yet we often talk about everything else, when we talk about poverty.

In part, I think this is because work is an incredibly complicated and immediately overwhelming topic. We can give people food, and they’ll probably eat it. We can build a shelter, and people will probably sleep in it. But how do we make sure that people have decent jobs with decent pay?

Deena Ladd, from the Workers Action Centre in Toronto, bit off this question with her optimistic keynote address at the Poverty Symposium, “Bringing Fairness to our Workplaces.” As she outlined, we are in the midst of a major and unique opportunity for change. For the first time ever, through “The Changing Workplaces Review,” our provincial government is updating the Employment Standards Act and the Canadian Labour Relations Act!

Yes, an exclamation mark is in order. These Acts are our rules for work. They establish how employers and employees should and can treat each other. They provide (some) of us with things like weekends, overtime pay, benefits, and a minimum wage. They make it possible for others of us to work years in so-called temporary positions, without weekends, overtime pay or benefits–and to be fired for speaking out.

Legalism, basically

The Acts are outdated and incomplete. This is a problem because we live in a highly legalistic society, meaning that our laws—more than our values—determine how we live. I’m simplifying here, but my point is that wherever the law is silent, people act. No rule that independent contractors must receive sick days? They won’t. Here it’s worth quoting at length, from a recent Worker’s Action Centre report:

Gaps in the ESA have enabled employers to develop strategies for work organization that evade core labour standards and that have pushed workers beyond the protection of the ESA. Non-standard forms of work are growing. Yet our labour laws and employment benefits are still based almost exclusively on a standard employment relationship developed last century that linked decent wages, benefits, working conditions, and job security to the full time work with a single employer.

Historic exclusions of certain types of work organization from ESA protections, such as independent contractors, have created incentives for employers to move workers into these forms of work where employers have fewer responsibilities. Contracting out of work that can be done in-house is yet another practice that is re-emerging. This was a common practice in garment manufacturing at the beginning of the last century. Externalizing employment costs to temporary help agencies is yet another fast-growing strategy for just-in-time labour sourcing.

Employers take advantage of weak rules and absent referees, employees suffer, and work in general becomes increasingly precarious. Ladd describes precarious work as that which is often temporary, contract, part-time, or through a temp agency; lower waged than similar, full-time work; without or with fewer employment and health benefits; unpredictably scheduled; and lacking protections when wages and rights are violated.

These are not abstract concerns. Ontario’s (and Canada’s) economy is changing: every year more of us are precariously employed. Every year more full time jobs disappear, and are replaced by part time, temporary, contract jobs, jobs that do not include benefits, or paid sick days, or the predictably adequate income a person requires to live a healthy life. Consider the following graph from Kaylie Tiessen, economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:  Image

According to Ladd, 41% of Ontarians do not have standard full time employment, a figure she thinks is conservative because we no longer have the long form census. And workers are not choosing to work less. As Tiessen puts it, “In 2013, 32% of all part-time employees reported they would rather be working full time — an increase of 43% since 2000.” Part time work is less desirable for many reasons, including the fact that the median hourly wage for part time work is about half the median wage for full time employees:


Source: Statistics Canada, CANSIM tables 282-0069 and 282-0073

Today, one in three workers in Ontario is earning a low wage, compared to about one in five, 10 years ago.

The temporary work industry also continues to grow in Ontario and beyond. Here’s one more graph from Tiessen’s CCPA report, again using Statistics Canada numbers:


Tiessen suggests that the major dip in 2007 and 2008 is further evidence of temporary workers’s precarity: they were the first to be laid off, and in large numbers, at the start of the recession in those years. Indeed, her statistical analysis lines up with my recent experience at the Changing Workplaces Review in Guelph. There I heard temporary workers like Jordan Ellis share about working 10 to 15 jobs a year, for years on end, with no real prospect of finding permanent work, and no guarantee of work the next day. I also heard employers affirm our current labour laws, reject claims for change, and stress the importance to their work of this abstract concept called “flexible labour.”

So we have this problem: not enough good work, and too much bad work. The bad work has expensive, far reaching consequences, and there is more of it every year. It requires workers to use food banks and go without dental care and be terrified of getting sick and missing a day of work and having to depend, again, on payday lenders. These are things we all eventually pay for—poverty is expensive. From this perspective, The Canadian Dream—social mobility through hard work—seems false. For many Ontarians, work is not the alternative, or the solution to grinding poverty. Rather, they go together. These are the socio-economic conditions that make the phrase “working poor” commonplace instead of oxymoronic.

But we also have a smart analysis of one important cause of bad work: the outdated and spotty Employment Standards Act. And we have an opportunity to intervene, to make the rules better, to tell our representatives what is going on, and what is going wrong. We can tell the Changing Workplaces Review what we think. (Here’s how.)

We can also—and I obviously think we should—support the growing “Fight for $15 and Fairness” campaign in Ontario (and British Columbia, and Novia Scotia, and across the United States). This campaign calls for a “$15 minimum wage, and decent hours, paid sick days, respect at work, and rules that protect all of us.”

And so, in addition to updating our labour laws, the $15 and Fairness campaign highlights a second cause of bad work: low wages. There are different ways to talk about the so-called “poverty line,” but an especially good measure is Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cutoff (LICO). The LICO is an “income threshold below which a family will likely devote a larger share of its income on the necessities of food, shelter and clothing than the average family.” In 2002, the before tax LICO for a single person in Waterloo Region was 20,366. For two person families, it was 25,353. If you worked 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, for $11 an hour, you would earn 22,880, before taxes. So, if you were single, you would be poor, but not below the poverty line. If you had any dependents, you would be thousands of dollars, or more, below the poverty line, meaning you spend most or all of your money on the bare necessities of life.

I’m not going to run these (OK, pretty simple) numbers for all of Canada, but if this is the case in Ontario, which has the highest provincial minimum wage in Canada (the Northwest Territories is higher), I think we should expect similar outcomes across Canada.

A $15 minimum wage would help to make work a real pathway out of poverty in Ontario. And though there’s plenty more to say about this, but many smart people have researched, and concluded that raising minimum wages does not create unemployment. Indeed, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives just released a study called “Dispelling Minimum Wage Mythology.” They found that between 1983 and 2012 in Canada there was “no consistent evidence that minimum wage levels affect employment in either direction. Instead, the research concludes that employment levels are overwhelmingly determined by larger macroeconomic factors (such as the state of aggregate demand and GDP growth).” What’s more, “GDP growth can be accelerated if a higher proportion of the working-age population secures stable, productive, and fairly remunerated work.” Economists will continue to debate how best to create good jobs, which I won’t touch here cough*Keynes*cough.

It is also true that we are often confused about who actually works minimum wage jobs (hint: it’s not who you think):


Some of the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign’s goals could be accomplished through advocacy at the Changing Workplaces Review. On the 15 and Fairness website you can also endorse their campaign, e-mail the minister of Labour, and learn about other ways to get involved.

Los Angeles, the fourth largest city in North America, recently signed into law a $15 minimum wage inside city limits. As the Los Angeles City Council President put it, “The winds of this country blow from West to East.” Those winds are clearly blowing North as well: Alberta is getting a provincial $15 minimum wage. We should not miss this unprecedented opportunity to shape policy to reduce poverty and create decent work.


One Response to “Two Ways To Make Jobs Better and Reduce Poverty”

  1. Continuing Conversation About The Working Poor | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] a BSW student on placement at House of Friendship.  It carries on the theme we explored in a few posts last year and raises some questions that the many people we meet each day struggle […]

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