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In BC’s ‘Strong’ Economy, Many Signs of Struggle for Average Workers

Growth belies rise in precarious work, falling wages, and increases in welfare case loads.

Andrew MacLeod 26 Sep

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

The British Columbia government has repeatedly highlighted that B.C.’s economy leads Canada for growth, but there are many indications that average workers continue to struggle in the province.

“This is the problem with saying we have a strong economy,” said Irene Lanzinger, the president of the BC Federation of Labour. “We are not looking at what kinds of jobs are being produced.... We have seen an increase in the part-time precarious work.”

The rise in precarious work, working conditions and the wages that jobs pay make a big difference to people’s lives, said Iglika Ivanova, an economist in the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. None of those indicators are captured in the economic growth figure, she said.

Private sector analysts project B.C.’s gross domestic product will grow by 2.9 per cent in 2016, according to figures released with the province’s quarterly budget update on Sept. 15. That’s ahead of every other province and well above the Canadian average of 1.2 per cent, a fact frequently noted by Premier Christy Clark and Finance Minister Michael de Jong.

By August 2016, employment had grown to approximately 2.39 million, up by about 202,000 jobs since a low in March 2009, de Jong said while presenting the update.

Regional and economic ‘divide’

An August report from Central 1 Credit Union says the job growth in the province is on track to be the strongest since 1994 and “make up for a few lean years since 2012.”

But it also notes that much of the growth is in part-time work. “Year-to-date full-time employment growth averaged 2.6 per cent in August, with part-time gains up 7 per cent.”

And the report pointed out the “regional employment and the economic divide in the province,” something the credit union’s economists have warned about previously. The employment growth has been concentrated on the south coast, it said, driven by tourism, service exports, housing and consumer demand.

“In contrast, employment gains have been weak in other markets,” the report said. “Both Kelowna and Abbotsford-Mission have posted contractions, while a scan of economic regions across the province shows a similar story reflecting higher exposure to the struggling base metals and energy sectors, and the impact of the Alberta recession on the interprovincial labour market.”

Other reports also point to weakness. Statistics Canada’s quarterly Job Vacancy and Wage Survey looks at the pay being offered for jobs that are open. In B.C., the average in the first quarter of 2016 was $19.30 an hour. That was below the Canadian average of $19.95 an hour, putting the province sixth out of 10.

Falling weekly wages

Income statistics from BC Stats, the provincial government’s research agency, show that when expressed in constant dollars, weekly wages have been dropping in B.C. since December. The worst performance was in April, when weekly wages in B.C. dropped by 3.4 per cent. Across Canada that month, they went up by 1.1 per cent.

In August, the most recent month available, the average weekly wage in B.C. was $927.99, slightly below the Canadian average. Despite the downturn in Alberta, workers in that province were still the top paid in the country, making on average $1,106.60 a week, or nearly 20 per cent more than people employed in B.C.

The weekly average wage was also higher in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador.

And while weekly wages across Canada had grown by an average of 2.3 per cent from a year earlier, in B.C. the figure was a tepid 0.7 per cent. Wages had grown slower in only two provinces, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Meanwhile, the consumer price index has gone up faster in B.C. than the Canadian average in every one of the last 12 months.

Another sign that many are struggling is the welfare case load, which as of July was up four per cent from a year earlier. That included a 5.5 per cent jump in the “temporary” category, which includes people classified as expected to work.

Ontario investigating precarious work

The government’s claims about the strength of the economy are clearly at odds with a recent survey showing some 53 per cent of British Columbians would have trouble paying their bills if they missed a single paycheque, the CCPA’s Ivanova said.

She pointed out that despite job number increases in B.C., some of the largest increases have been in the lowest paid sectors. Meanwhile childcare subsidies, which help people work, have been frozen since 2006, she said, adding there are many people who may be above the poverty line who are still struggling to support their families.

Other provinces have taken steps to look at the rise of precarious employment. In July, the Ontario labour ministry, for example, released a 312-page report on the changing workplace and examining the effects of the government’s labour relations and employment standards laws.

Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training Minister Shirley Bond said in an emailed statement that the ministry is aware of the Ontario report and looking at it for any implications for B.C. She also said the B.C. Law Institute is reviewing the Employment Standards Act to “look at the modern B.C. workplace and examine employment standards and evolving trends in other jurisdictions.”

The “reports” page on the ministry’s website shows nothing similar to the Ontario review and nothing at all new since July 2014.

A provincial government that was serious about sharing the benefits of a strong economy would raise the minimum wage and support improving the Canadian Pension Plan, said BCFED president Lanzinger.

“We haven’t seen that kind of intervention on the parts of governments to ensure jobs are good jobs,” she said. “I think the government really doesn’t want to admit how many people are working at really low-wage jobs.”

One out of four workers in B.C. earns less than $15 an hour, she said. “That’s a huge problem.”

To support themselves and their families, most workers need and want permanent, full-time work that pays well and comes with benefits and a pension, Lanzinger said. “We have not seen these jobs increase in B.C. In fact, we’ve seen them decrease.”

The BCFED is planning to focus more on the rise of precarious work, she said, attention that’s needed in the absence of government action.

“They don’t seem interested in any way in vulnerable workers and how to improve things for them,” Lanzinger said. The government seems more interested in its corporate friends and how to keep them happy, she said.  [Tyee]

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