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Opinion

Time for a system upgrade

Published on 27/05/2015

If you want to watch the YouTube video of the grumpy cat, or stream the latest Netflix series, you really don’t have a choice. You must be running the latest operating system on your computer or the newest app on your iPad or Android device. When it comes to technology, operating systems and software, we understand the importance of regular maintenance and system upgrades to stay up to date. Microsoft, Apple and Adobe have trained us very well. These upgrades often happen automatically and are essential if you want to stay connected.

Unfortunately, such automatic upgrades haven’t happened with our social system. Our once strong social safety net hasn’t changed much over the last half century. Designed and implemented more than five decades ago, the legislation, regulations and policy frameworks to protect workers and provide income security have not had a system upgrade. And yet so much in our world has changed.

Much has changed for the better. We have made strides in embracing diversity, and women play a much more important role – they even head three of our biggest provinces. Workplaces are more flexible, and technology has changed how we communicate, work and live.

But change has also left many people behind.

If we look at the labour market in particular, it has been dramatically transformed. Lifelong employment with one employer and progressive career ladders are almost non-existent. There are fewer full-time, permanent jobs and more part-time jobs. Many workers are left with non-standard working arrangements. The growth of contractual and contingent relationships is exemplified by the U.K. “zero hour contract,” highlighted in a recent Globe and Mail article, where companies are under no obligation to offer even minimum working hours.

Workers are increasingly becoming a variable that can be manipulated to ensure a flexible market – their protection and rights are not central to the system. In short, their situation is precarious.

In recent weeks, the calls for a system upgrade have grown stronger. Read through the pages of Workers’ Action Centre’s Still Working on the Edge or the just released The Precarity Penalty published by United Way Toronto and McMaster University. They paint a graphic picture of how outdated programs are leaving workers undervalued and unprotected. The recent project by four Canadian think tanks to modernize our social architecture provides clear recommendations in areas such as housing, training and care giving. The consensus seems to be that we have an aging social infrastructure, and that programs designed in the post war era no longer meet the needs of a 21st century society.

As we revamp our safety net, we need to be mindful of how we do it. The call for modernization should not be only for government legislation and policy, but also for other major stakeholders and decision makers, employers and labour. The key, of course, is that all need to work together to make the change happen.

At Maytree, we’re interested in exploring what modernizing social policy should look like through a rights-based lens, and we believe this involves important core values. Key to this is the involvement of people whose lives are impacted by the decisions made and the directions taken in the negotiation of a renewed social contract. There are opportunities right now to ensure such participation.

The Ontario government is beginning a timely review of the Labour Relations Act and the Employment Standards Act. This presents an important opportunity for the many workers whose employment falls outside of the current framework to have their concerns included in the future designs and their rights as workers protected. And as new systems and upgrades are developed and intended outcomes are expressed, it will be critical to follow through with collecting and sharing the data that tells the story of change and tells us whether we are making progress or in fact widening the gap.

As we address the ever widening gaps in our social architecture and prepare to engage in a long overdue system upgrade, all of us need to be part of this process. Unlike an operating system upgrade to your smart phone, this is not just a matter of pressing a button that says “continue.” The design and change of social systems are more complex and must consider the impacts on people. Accountability, transparency, measuring progress, access and participation are essential hallmarks to protecting the rights of workers and fighting poverty.

The most important thing at this moment will be the legitimate and authentic engagement of citizens in the process; framing the questions, shaping the narrative, and articulating their needs.

Topic(s)

Income security

Summary

Our failure to keep programs in our social safety net up to date is leaving vulnerable people behind.