This is one of those times when history speeds up.
A few months ago the Pearson Centre published a report I wrote on Future of Work Policies for the 2020’s. At that time, just before the pandemic struck, academics around the world were forecasting disruptive changes in the nature and organization of work, between now and 2030. COVID has accelerated the change. Many workers are scrambling to find a new way to make a living. The government and society want and need people to get back to work, earn money and pay taxes. But there will be no return to a past economy. It is transforming in front of our eyes. Artificial intelligence, robotization, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and IT-assisted reorganization of industry (like Uber) are creating specialized work opportunities. Many routine jobs are being eliminated. Others will be fragmented and subcontracted to independent workers. Som will be recombined and transformed by technology and different work requirements.
COVID has also exposed the seamy underside of the Canadian economy. We are faced with the reality that many people who we depend on have been underpaid and exploited while the fortunate in society thrive. People who cobble together two or three jobs to earn a subsistence living that does not measure up to Canadian standards. They work without standard benefits or security. Canada has one of the largest precarious workforces in the OECD, exceeded only by the US. The OECD puts the low wage Canadian work force at 22% of the whole, while several European countries are around 10%.
So if our economy can’t afford to pay them a living wage, then where does the money go?
Per the report by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies’ Program for Inequality, between March 18 and May 19, the total net worth of the 600-plus U.S. billionaires jumped by $434 billion or 15%, based on the group’s analysis of Forbes data.
The top five U.S. billionaires (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison) saw their wealth grow by a total of $75.5 billion.Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has seen his net worth grow 30.6% in the past two months, boosting it to $147.6 billion; the fortunes of Bezos and Zuckerberg combined grew by nearly $60 billion, or 14% of the $434 billion total.
Does this seem right to anyone? Should we try to restore the status quo or change it?
There will be few opportunities to get things right for workers and families. Like other industrial revolutions in history, the expanding tentacles of economic power become increasingly interlaced and embedded in society. Look at the power exercised through global supply chains.
Perhaps in some future era, we will not need to work to produce our goods and services, and exchange the benefits of society. But right now we do, and work values are entrenched in our morals and our social relations. We are not at a point to discard work, but are in process of reinventing it. We can though, discard the notion that it is ok for “the market” to determine that some workers will be exploited. All things considered, the time to act on work is now.
Future of Work Policies for the 2020’s (also reposted on the SocialCanada.org site) recommends a package of policies and programs to prepare workers and provide them a voice in the determination of their working conditions.
The report recommends a guaranteed working income to eliminate the current exploitation by ensuring that every worker will receive – through living wage legislation or working income subsidies (Canada Worker Benefit), a wage equal at least to 3/4 of the median full time wage in the economic region.
It recommends renaming employment insurance to work insurance and insuring all types of work.
It recommends extending student loans to all adults and for almost type of education or training.
It recommends certification of skills and competencies acquired by workers through training or on the job, so that every worker has a portfolio.
It recommends the formation of economic sector councils made up of business and worker representatives. The councils would monitor market and working conditions and recommend fair wage scales and training support for the sector.
As technology replaces jobs, if new job creation is not sufficient to provide enough work opportunities, then working hours in the sector should be reduced on an equitable basis. Unemployment is not likely to be a big problem because the baby boom is retiring, and the health and education industries are in need of rapid expansion and upgrading.
What this all implies is a redistribution of a small portion of the benefits of work to those in the lower half of the income scale. This would be paid in part through higher prices for some goods and services which have hitherto been subsidized by exploiting workers. And in part, it would come through the working income tax credit. This in turn will require more effective taxation of high incomes and wealth – whether personal or corporate.
There is more to read in the report, and COVID makes it even more important for the Canadian governments to get a plan together.