Working Without a Net: Rethinking Canada’s social policy in the new age of work

Major changes in the economy are causing significant disruptions in Canadians’ working lives. Many Canadian workers are facing the threat of losing their jobs to automation in the next decade, having their full-time positions replaced with short-term/ temporary ones, and/or being unable able to share in the income gains from technological change. This study by researchers at the Mowat Centre in Ontario examines whether Canada’s social policy architecture – consisting of unemployment benefits, social assistance, health services, skills training – meets the challenges these changes present to Canadians.

The authors argue that prevailing economic and labour market trends, combined with emerging technological changes, are leading to a growing number of Canadian workers with little or no attachment to the labour market and limited access to adequate public social, health, employment and unemployment benefits. Without a policy change to respond to this new world of work, Canada’s social programs will prove inadequate to ensure enough Canadians can meet future challenges.

The report suggests the following approaches:

  • Strengthening foundational programs and policies that are broadly universal in nature and benefit many, such as pharmacare, pre-school, housing, childcare, homecare, pensions, child benefits, and working income tax benefits.
  • Updating targeted programs and policies that are designed to support those impacted by rapid technological disruption, declining unionization, and growing use of on-demand labour and conversion of employees to contractors: clarifying contractor vs employment designation as to rights and security, providing protection for contractors, enforcing employment standards, enhancing regulation of temporary employment agencies, introducing greater flexibility in public sector employment, and imposing fair employment practices on suppliers (preventing discrimination in hiring and compensation on the basis of disability, age, gender, etc.).
  • Implementing transformational initiatives that replace or reinvigorate traditional approaches, including adopting a “flexicurity” (flexibility + security) approach to labour market policy, introducing portable benefits for “gig” (on-demand) workers, introducing work-sharing (reducing workhours of the group instead of laying off individual members of it), considering a guaranteed/minimum annual income, encouraging corporations to invest more in skills training, and implementing a National Skills Strategy.

This report will be of interest to policy makers, employers and practitioners interested in understanding changes in employment conditions brought on by technological and the changes in social and related policies that will be needed to reduce the negative impact of these trends on affected workers and to support them in preparing for and securing good jobs.

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