When protesters turned their backs on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the national Young Workers’ Summit, they caused a media frenzy. But they also placed a magnifying lens on the rise of precarious work in Canada and the government’s lack of political will to address it.
An initial dozen delegates, most of whom had not previously known each other, stood up and turned away as the prime minister began speaking at the Canadian Labour Congress event in Ottawa on Oct. 25. Others quickly joined, bringing the number to more than 30 in a matter of seconds. Some people held up signs, while others heckled and booed Trudeau.
Their message: We have been let down, and the honeymoon is over.
After getting word that the prime minister would speak at the summit, young labour leaders had met to talk about how to get across that message.
“We convened a meeting with people from at least five different unions … to talk about what is going to make the strongest statement of why we’re doing this,” said Jessica Sikora, president of OPSEU Local 586 and a member of the union’s Provincial Young Workers Committee.
“It quickly came to us, this message that we feel the need to turn our back on him because we feel he turned his back on us.”
Precarious work defines a generation
Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau caused another media firestorm when he recently suggested that precarious work — or “job churn,” as he called it — is a reality that young Canadians will simply have to accept and get used to.
That’s unacceptable, say many youth.
“Young people want to have stable work, want to enjoy the same things previous generations have enjoyed, and (the government) is basically saying, ‘No that’s not going to happen. You just have to get used to precarious work because that’s the way things are now,’” said Derik Chica, a member of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation who held up a sign during Trudeau’s presentation.
“But I would look at it as (the government’s) job to make sure we do enjoy security in our jobs, in our work. That’s the reason they get elected, to make sure people aren’t popping from job to job.”
Minister Bill Morneau was not available for comment by press time.
Niki Ashton, a federal MP and the NDP critic for jobs, employment and workforce development, has been touring the country talking to young people about precarious work. She says it’s “highly problematic” when the government simply “shrugs its shoulders” and tells people to suck it up.
“This is the side of the government that, much like previous governments, is willing to sit back and contribute to the forces that allow for more precarious work,” said Ashton, adding that unstable work is quickly becoming the defining characteristic of the millennial generation.
“The rise of precarious work is linked to the rise of inequality,” she said. “And we know that inequality, in the millennial generation, is greater that in previous (ones).”
The neoliberal agenda espoused by governments of all stripes has given rise to privatization, deregulation, free trade agreements and austerity measures. These, in turn, have exacerbated the spread of unstable work as many jobs disappear from the country, Ashton argued.
“So we’ve seen the rise of two-tier workplaces. We see reliance on temporary agency work. Canada has turned more to exploitation of temporary foreign workers, which is another element of precarious work,” she said. “So we’re seeing inequality in a more acute sense in our generation, and no one is saying it’s going to get better unless we change the way we’re doing things.”
Protecting good jobs
After travelling to 14 communities across Canada and speaking with thousands of young people, the NDP are now demanding action from the federal government.
“What we’ve heard is that this is not an issue that involves tinkering around the edges,” said Ashton. “This is about bold action that’s necessary to challenge the systems that are holding us back. ”
The NDP is calling for legislative changes to the labour code and to the social safety net many young Canadians keep having to turn to in the face of job insecurity. They are also tackling “compounding factors like tuition and student debt.”
“We want to make sure this is a visionary document that points to what protecting and creating good jobs ought to look like. We’re talking about the need for national leadership, for comprehensive action, and I would say that, much like we saw in the protest last Tuesday, young people want to challenge the status quo.”
More demonstrations are to be expected if young Canadians don’t see change soon, warned Sikora.
“The prime minister can come back to talk to us, as he should,” said Sikora. “But if he’s not going to do it with some real answers and real actions, then we’d rather he not waste our time. We don’t want platitudes and don’t want photo ops. We want action. And if he comes back in the future, and he’s ready to give us action, then we’re ready to listen.”