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  • Photograph by Elaine Casap

Plan B: Canada's Gig Economy

Precarious work is on the rise in Canada.

In the early-1990s, when I was a young newspaper reporter, I started to notice experienced workers in their mid-fifties were getting nudged out of the workplace, including mine.

They were given early retirement packages, buyouts. And a specific set of marketing was attached to this phenomenon: ads literally promoting Freedom 55 for older workers who could now become consultants and determine their own workday.

At the same time, young workers like me were being told to expect to have five careers in our lifetime; it was the end of the job for life.

Fast forward to today: Some workers are juggling several different gigs just to get by. The so-called “sharing economy” is contributing to a rise in precarious jobs—though even formerly stable, professional jobs are also at risk.

Think: university and college sessional instructors, journalists working on short-term contracts, care workers with no job security.

As for Freedom 55, it never did take into account the lack of retirement income to keep a household going as it ages, especially if your household doesn’t have benefits and a pension plan. Upstream Radio’s Plan B podcast with host Ralph Benmergui calls it Freedom 85.

“Sharing,” Ralph says, “that’s such a nice word, isn’t it?”

On the latest podcast (listen here), Ralph and I talk about the gig/”sharing” economy, the downside of precarious work, and the need for governments to better regulate Canada’s changing labour market to protect workers’ health and safety.

In that conversation, I share findings from research I did with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). We surveyed 2,000 workers in the Greater Toronto Area who identified as working in the sharing economy. A lot of them liked the work they were doing, but there were clear downsides: 41% said they don’t make enough money to get by; 38% said customer disputes were a pain; they said it was hard to get enough work and if they get sick they don’t get paid.

Shouldn’t we be calling it the “on-your-own economy”? This is not my parents’ labour market. This is a different reality, where people don’t actually expect to have the kind of work that enables them to have job stability and to squirrel away for a pension.

The longer governments ignore those things it ends up costing us more later on. It costs us when we have seniors living in poverty, or when people are sick but they can’t get the treatments that they need to prevent getting sicker.

What can we do about it?

The number one job that government has is to protect the public good. That means through regulation, to ensure people’s health and safety is not at risk.

From our study: survey respondents said the “sharing economy” needs to be more regulated: 72% supported better health and safety standards; 66% supported regulating business responsibilities of the platform owner. They understood that government had a role to play to protect them.

Ralph asks Sari Sairanen, national health safety and environment director at Unifor: if work isn’t working, what’s Plan B?

“Collective coming together, unionization,” Sari says. “Giving the collective power, the solidarity, to workplaces that you can come together and find solutions.”

That includes unionizing gig economy workers and having a real conversation about just transition strategies for workers.

Connect upstream.