All provinces in Canada are still grappling with the economic and employment effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession. Ontario’s labour market was among the worst-impacted in Canada by the pandemic. And these immediate challenges are layered on top of longer-run issues related to the future of work: including technology, demographic changes, new business models, and others.
In this context, the Ontario government recently launched a hastily-organized public consultation on the Future of Work, overseen by a 7-person ‘Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee’. The consultation is unusual for several reasons, including the non-representative composition of the committee itself (there are no committee members representing union, worker, or equality-seeking organisations), the highly-compressed timeline for public submissions (less than one month, in the middle of summer), and the unusual and clearly targeted nature of the three discussion questions posted to guide the consultation. The process has been strongly criticized by various stakeholders and in the media. In particular, since one of the three discussion questions focuses squarely on proposals to change Ontario’s labour laws to accommodate the current employment practices of on-demand digital platform businesses like Uber (practices which are being challenged, in Ontario and around the world, with regulatory, political, and trade union interventions), many worry that the whole consultation is effectively a vehicle to support new legislation to liberalize and legitimate these controversial gig economy practices.
The future of work will determine the prosperity and well-being of workers in Ontario for decades to come, and any proper inquiry into this set of topics should be done right: with time, with resources to consult with experts and conduct original research, and reflecting a genuine range of views and interests. While the issues related to on-demand platform work are important and complex, they hardly constitute the full extent of future of work discussions that Ontario should be having. And this consultation, so hurried and narrow, is not the proper forum to consider the far-reaching and likely unintended consequences of accepting proposals from Uber and other platforms to change labour laws to cement and legalize their current practices.
Centre for Future Work Director Jim Stanford prepared a submission to the Ontario consultation, based on his experience as a labour economist and also an advisor to numerous previous Ontario economic policy initiatives (most recently including as a member of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s Advisory Council on Ontario’s Economic Future). His submission argues that the committee should consider a broader range of issues: including threats to future labour demand, not just workforce supply, and the importance of public supports like accessible child care to future labour force participation. He also provided a critique of claims that on-demand platform work represents a ‘new era’ in work, one which advances desired ‘flexibility’ for workers in these businesses.