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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 2, October 2005

CBC lockout

Labour flexibility just doesn’t work

CBC President Robert Rabinovitch has made the case that the CBC needs greater labour flexibility so it can get the right people at the right time to tell the right stories. He is sharing only part of his vision for Canada’s public broadcaster.

The dispute is not only about whether the corporation can be current, innovative, and creative; it is as much about whether temporary employees will be treated as well as permanent ones, and whether the corporation will use temporary employees to undermine its current employees.

The CBC dispute is just one example of a larger trend in the Canadian economy toward the increased use of non-permanent employees.

Since the 1980s, many Canadian employers have responded to economic competition by shedding permanent full-time employees and replacing them with temporary employees on short-term contracts. Many companies have increased their reliance on temporary-employment agencies. Hospitals, manufacturers, and even universities have become increasingly reliant on temporary employees.

It is an open question as to whether that approach has reduced costs for employers or allowed them to produce a better product. Paying only for the labour you need and having the ability to increase or decrease labour with few constraints may appear attractive in the short run.

In the long run, it may have serious costs.

Why should employees show loyalty to an organization that treats them as a rented commodity? How will employees develop specialized skills and knowledge of an organization when their relationship with the organization is contractual, short term, and insecure? Will employers be able to attract the best and the brightest when all they offer is temporary employment?

There is a second dimension to this debate: What effect is the shift to temporary contract status having on employee health and safety?

Studies over the past decade in many sectors of the economy have repeatedly shown increased risks of injury and illness associated with the increased use of non-permanent workers.

A review of the annual U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics census showed that self-employed workers account for about 20% of fatal injuries but represent only 8% of the employed work force. Studies comparing permanent and non-permanent workers in the building, hospitality, childcare, road transport, and garment-making sectors find health outcomes worse for non-permanent workers.

It is now recognized that when workers in full-time permanent positions face limited control over how they work, as well as heavy workloads, they suffer stress-related health effects. But what is the health effect of losing control over whether one has a job at all?

It could be argued that the trend toward short-term contracts increases the amount of control that job seekers have because they can pick and choose where and when they want to work. That may be true for a minority of highly skilled workers. But to suggest that workers in general have more control under this new form of employment is to misunderstand the real gains many workers made after the Second World War, when work became more permanent and regulated by collective agreements.

For most employees, control is not based on being able to choose when, where, and even whether to work, but rather on being in an employment relationship that has some degree of permanence and has a system of joint determination of compensation and working conditions.

The reality for most temporary workers is that they do not know from week to week if they will be working, where they will be working, or at what rate of compensation they’ll be working. For young workers, the uncertainty makes it difficult to plan a future. For workers with families, the uncertainty makes it difficult to arrange childcare, participate fully in their children’s lives, or play a role in their communities. For all temporary workers, the need to remain flexible, should work become available on short notice, makes it difficult to make fixed commitments to family, friends, and society.

Our research has shown that compared with permanent employees, temporary ones spend more time searching for work. They will do extraordinary things to keep work and spend time and resources acquiring skills on the speculation that it will help them get work. They also express a sense of insecurity from not knowing if or when they will find work. The uncertainties, extra workload, and low rates of compensation weigh heavily on their health and sense of well-being.

Even if the CBC’s president is correct that productive skilled workers can be had on a temporary basis, that is not an approach that is in the interest of Canadians as a whole. It is an approach that harms the health of workers, undermines families, and reduces our capacity to act as a society. It is not a course we should support or expect from an agency largely funded by the taxpayers.

Source: Globe and Mail Update, September 2, 2005. Wayne Lewchuk, Alice deWolff, Amy King, and Marlea Clarke.

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