Precarious young retail workers: Part 2

Read Part 1 here

By Daniel Tseghay

In her 2014 book, Revolutionizing Retail: Workers, Political Action, and Social Change, Kendra Coulter, a Labour Studies professor at Brock University, precarity is shown to be a consistent part of the retail sector. This is especially concerning considering that Coulter, drawing on a 2011 Statistics Canada report, says that the industry employs one in ten Canadian workers. Walmart_615_330_80

Coulter notes that, according to a 2012 Statistics Canada report, “at least a quarter of part-time workers would like to be full-time”. According to “Part-Time, Poorly paid, Unprotected”, in 2014, over a quarter of all workers in the Greater Victoria area were involuntarily working part-time with even more in the same situation within retail, food service, and hospitality. “According to WorkBC, 40.7% of accommodation and food services workers and 26.7% of Wholesale and Retail Trade workers are part-time, as compared to the provincial average of 21%,” the report says. Retail workers, the report continues, are working on average 26.3 hours a week while accommodation and food services employees are working 23 hours.

One reason so many want to work full-time is that the wages are so low. Retail workers are often earning just barely above the minimum wage, or $11.50 an hour according to a 2012 Statistics Canada report. In the accommodation and food services industry in BC, workers are earning a little more, according to “Part-Time, Poorly paid, Unprotected”. “[M]en make on average $15.21 per hour (compared to a provincial average of $26.36),” the report says, “while women make on average $13.50 per hour (compared to a provincial average of $22.05).” All together, this may explain why, according to the survey the authors of “Part-Time, Poorly paid, Unprotected” conducted, people stayed in these industries for an average of only about 6 months.

Echoing the trends we saw earlier, showing that women were securing fewer full-time jobs, Coulter shows that women are also earning less. “Despite forming a majority of the workforce, women in retail still make substantially less than men across jurisdictions,” Coulter writes. “For example, in the province of Ontario, women constitute 69 percent of retail workers (salespeople, clerks, cashiers, and supervisors) yet earn only 77 percent of what men in the sector are paid: average hourly wages of $10.95 versus $14.25 per hour.”

In addition to the number of hours an employee works, whether their job is temporary, and how much they get paid, there are a few other ways in which a worker’s job can be precarious. “[H]ow hours are allocated is unpredictable,” Coulter writes. “It is not uncommon for retail workers to get their schedules a few days in advance, to have their shifts changed or canceled at the last minute, to be sent home without pay mid-shift, and to have their hours fluctuate, substantially…Retail workers are expected to be available seven days a week. Which days and times they are scheduled to work vary continuously, thus planning to take a course, arrange child care, or even book medical appointments in advance is very difficult. Those in retail also often have to work on days considered holidays for other groups of workers. Because of the low pay, retail workers have mixed feelings about working on holidays…[O]ther are so desperate for income, they leap at the chance to work more.”

Last-minute schedules are very common in these industries, making it very difficult to plan a life around. “Many workers talked about receiving their scheduling only a day or two in advance…and left them not knowing how much pay they would earn the next week,” says the report “Part-Time, Poorly paid, Unprotected”.

On-call scheduling is also a common practice. Sometimes that can even mean that a worker arrives to their workplace at a scheduled time only to find out once there if they’ll be working or not. There are also open-ended shifts, where the end time is undetermined.

“Retail workers are reporting increased “just-in-time” scheduling, in which they get fewer hours while employers expect them to remain on call for last-minute changes,” says the report, “Still Working on the Edge”. “Such erratic schedules create stress and hardships for people trying to plan child care, education, or coordinate multiple jobs and ensure economic security.”

The authors of “Part-Time, Poorly paid, Unprotected” note that very few of the workers they spoke with received benefits from their employers beyond modest staff discounts. “Only a handful of workers had some amount of medical or dental coverage,” the report says, “while next to none had costs such as transportation or childcare covered. Paid sick days or parental leave were also extremely rare.” This is consistent with the understanding among many part-time workers that their hours are intentionally kept low so they won’t be eligible for the benefits that typically come with full-time work.

Often, workers were disciplined by having shifts cut or hours shortened. As a result, many feared calling in sick and risking a loss of hours and therefore earnings. According to “Still Working on the Edge,” only about 1 in 3 workers, most of whom are in retail, accommodation and food services, construction, health care, and social services, have sick leave protection.

Deepening an employee’s insecurity and precarity, many people aren’t officially fired in these industries. “Several workers shared the experience of not being fired directly but rather being given no shifts on the schedule, which effectively and immediately denies the worker of their employment and their wages,” the report “Part-Time, Poorly paid, Unprotected” says. “When an employer terminates a worker who has been employed for longer than three months, the worker is entitled to either notice or severance pay, according to the BC Employment Standards Act. In the case of tacit firing, employers can be successful at circumventing the existing Employment Standards.”

Possible solutions

With so many challenges facing young workers, particularly those in retail, food services, and accommodation, it’s time to honestly evaluate the solutions that have been offered. Some noted here are worth implementing while others may do more harm than good.

The panel which produced the December Statistics Canada report, “Perspectives on the Youth Labour Market in Canada, 1976 to 2015”, is coming out with a final report that’s due by March and is expected to make some proposals to address the challenges of young workers.

Responding to the report, Conservative youth critic Rachael Harder said the federal Liberals should invest in oil and gas sector and construct pipelines, as well as give young people even greater student loans for post-secondary education. Critics say that the oil and gas industry isn’t a great source for full-time and long-term work. And giving young people even easier access to student loans only deepens their debt down the road. The Federal NDP youth critic Niki Ashton, following this critique, called for an end to unpaid internships and debt reduction for those with student loans from the federal government.

According to a 2013 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, “The Young and the Jobless: Youth Unemployment in Ontario”, there are a number of programs that focus on the creation of short-term employment for students, failing to address the long-term and structural problems.

The federal Liberals have committed to increasing funding for the Youth Employment Strategy (YES) by $219 million. They have promised to help young workers access jobs and training, as well as provide subsidies for businesses. Again, this doesn’t get to the root of the problem since public funds are being transferred to a private sector which won’t necessarily create secure and stable jobs for young workers.

Other than government funding, some recommendations include changing the labour laws. “The basic standards established within the Employment Standards Act (ESA) are often inadequate and fail to address many concerns workers in these industries face, leaving workers without protection,” writes the authors of “Part-Time, Poorly paid, Unprotected”. “Some of the precarious workplace conditions we highlight are actually legal, according to the ESA. For example, the minimum wage established in the ESA is far below a living wage, and it allows for an even lower wage for liquor servers.”

In February, the federal government convened an “Expert Panel on Youth Employment” and UFCW Canada delivered a submission with its recommendations as well as participated in a roundtable discussion. The Panel followed an interim report from 2016, but Maceda, who participated in it, expressed frustration, saying that the initial report “had about 300 participants, none of whom came from labour. It was mostly employers, service providers, and post-secondary institutions helping with career employment.” Concerning post-secondary institutions, Maceda notes that many young workers aren’t in school. When UFCW Canada finished their “Ignite Youth Conference” in the summer of 2016, which brought young workers from across Canada together for discussions about their challenges, Maceda discovered the great variety of experiences and needs. “We asked young people exactly what they need, what kinds of changes they’d like to see from the federal government,” says Maceda. “That’s really important, especially looking at this interim report. One of the asks that our young people had was around affordable child care. When you read these interim reports it doesn’t seem like they’re talking about young people who have families, which is a reality for many young people.”

Ontario is currently conducting a review of the ever-evolving nature of workplaces, with an interim report recommending changes to the province’s Labour Relations Act (LRA) and the Employment Standards Act (ESA). Among other organizations, the Workers’ Action Centre is proposing its own recommendations, detailed in their September report, “Building Decent Jobs from the ground up: Responding to the Changing Workplaces Review”. The report underscores the importance of unionization, especially in industries that are increasingly precarious, and calls on the elimination of barriers to organizing through “modernizing the LRA to address changing workplaces and business models” which often engage in “subcontracting, outsourcing, franchising, indirect hiring through temporary help agencies and other methods”.

Fortunately, there are some other efforts to eliminating barriers to unionization. The Ontario NDP Labour Critic has proposed a bill, the Fairness in First Contracts and the Right to Representation Act, which is currently tabled and which would reinstate card check certification. Rather than having workers who are interested in joining a union sign a membership card and also vote for the union, giving the employer enough time to intimidate them and reverse their decision, the bill calls for a single step, making unionization easier and likelier.

Such a reform is important when we look at the gains achieved through collective bargaining for all workers but especially for precarious retail workers. When 12,000 Loblaws workers in Ontario faced unpredictable shift scheduling practices and were primarily given part-time work, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Locals 1000A, 175, and 633 bargained for contracts that made scheduling significantly better, giving workers advance notice of their schedules.

“We have, in respect to part-time scheduling, made substantial gains throughout the years in our retail agreements,” says Deelstra about his local. “For a number of years we’ve had language in our Metro supermarket agreement that provides for hour guarantee for part-time workers.”

DiCaro saw similar gains through collective bargaining for Unifor retail workers. “Wages for low-wage workers was one, scheduling improvements, scheduling notice periods, and access to hours which is a huge problem for retail workers who are faced with erratic scheduling,” he says. “In some collective agreements we had part-time workers who had zero access to benefits and we broke ground for them for the first time for health and dental benefits.”

These gains highlight the importance of unionization and it’s a promising sign that young people have a positive view of unions. “Young people are acutely aware of issues in their workplaces, and are interested in joining unions. In fact, while the unionization rate for core-age workers has decreased over the past two decades, the unionization rate for young workers has actually risen slightly,” says the report, “Diving Without a Parachute”. “Although union-busting employers and politicians have eroded the historic strength of unions and created some negative misperceptions of the labour movement, unions’ core principles of empowering workers, social justice, fairness and collaboration resonate heartily with young Canadians.”

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