By Emma Chamberlain

In Canada, as with the most of the modern world, the job market is changing. We are living in a period where unstable employment is increasingly normal. A new wave of precarious work can be seen far and wide and there’s an undeniable trend of companies looking for ways out of hiring traditional employees.

With the financial costs of hiring a full-time employee rising every year, it’s no surprise to see corporations reducing their permanent workforce. Ontario statistics suggest that between 30 and 32% of workers in this province are now signed to precarious job contracts.

These workers don’t receive benefits, vacation pay or a pension plan. Companies are refusing them a right to financial security, while saving themselves the costs and taxes included.

Reduced hours need not lead to cutting wages. With the right policy proposals in place, the four-day workweek would come at no cost to the economy or employee.

Employers able to do this, in part, due to an increase in automated tasks. Technology is rapidly reducing the amount of labour humans need to input and in doing so are enabling companies to stop paying for a full-time workforce.   

A four day workweek would mean one less morning commute.
   Credit: Ryan Tang

Options for full-time employment are decreasing along with the financial security that a permanent working contract brings. A proposed solution gaining momentum in some countries is to standardize a four-day workweek. Introducing a shorter workweek could  replace casual contracts with permanent jobs, designed for a workweek that ends a day early. 

Canadians already want to work less; a recent report from Kronos showed that a massive 59% of Canadians said they would opt for a shorter working week, given the option. So why aren’t we given the option? In the UK, the opposition Labour government has pledged to introduce a four-day workweek. Where other countries are progressing, Canada has yet to join the conversation.

In a clear step-back, the Canadian report ‘Precarity Penalty’ (released through Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario, 2015) recommends more employment through avenues such as increased training for precarious workers. This puts the onus on the individual to find stability by working more and ignores the root of the issue.

But increasing labour doesn’t match what workers want and it certainly doesn’t seem to be progressive towards a more automated future.  

The five-day workweek was first systematically instituted by New Deal politics in the U.S., with the 1940 Fair Labour Standards Act. This radical shift in the length of our workweek was 80 years ago, and nothing drastic has happened since.

With more people being employed precariously and working varying hours in unstable jobs, we need to rethink what is considered as the norm.

David Graeber’s infamous 2018 book, Bullsh*t Jobs explains that time at work is often spent doing futile processes. Workers are increasingly employed in positions where they serve little to no purpose. Some are merely ‘box-tickers’ and others ‘task-masters,’ spending most of their week occupying an office for what seems like no valid reason.

Graeber cites studies showing that the average American office worker only spends 39 percent of their time on the job doing the work they’re paid for, and that 40 percent of workers “think their jobs are completely pointless.”

This shows that productivity is not correlative with time spent at work. Out of the 35 countries included in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany works the least amount of hours — a staggering 35 thousand less hours per year than Canadians — and yet generates one of the world’s highest GDP’s. Numerous studies have shown that, if done right, working shorter hours actually improves productivity.

This means that reduced hours need not lead to cutting wages. With the right policy proposals in place, the four-day workweek would come at no cost to the economy or employee.

Our health and wellbeing is suffering due to working so much. Canadian workers made over 200 thousand claims to WSIB in 2017 because of injuries directly related to working conditions. This cost a massive $2,672.7 million in benefit payments.

Many of these injuries are due to overwork. Occupational & Environmental Medicine released a report concluding that jobs with scheduled overtime had a 61% higher injury hazard compared to jobs without overtime. They even found that injury usually occurs after the first eight hours of a shift.

Mental health is also at risk, with 62% of people say that work is their main source of stress. Is our mental and physical health worth sacrificing for a few more hours in the office anxiously trying to look busy, despite not having enough to do?

With other countries already producing reports on how we can create a stable future with less work, Canada needs to consider the options and develop a policy of its own.

An initiative proposed to give financial security during and after the change is a Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is a monetary subsidy available unconditionally to all members of a society and would resolve any financial uncertainty. With a government subsidised wage, aimed at covering the basic costs of living, losing one day of work a week suddenly doesn’t seem to carry the same negative implications.

UBI would also mean that people don’t have to take poorly-paying bullshit jobs out of desperation. Meanwhile, a shorter workweek would increase the availability of secure jobs, since employees would presumably have to increase their workforce by roughly one fifth.

Together a shorter workweek and unconditional UBI would provide economic security to those facing a precarious financial future.   

Reducing the workweek improves our health, conquers our anxieties about precarious work and ultimately frees us from the chains of a bullshit job. Though bold, it’s a move in the right direction for a country which should be addressing the crisis we are facing. A four-day workweek proposes a future that’s worth fighting for.

(For historical context on how a five-day workweek was achieved, see our companion article “Where did the five-day workweek come from?“)

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