B.C.’s NDP developing benefits, pension supports for gig workers

On the heels of winning re-election in British Columbia, the New Democratic Party’s work is just beginning, particularly in delivering on its promise to extend pensions and benefits to precarious workers across the province.

In its re-election platform, the party pledged to develop a government-backed, collective benefit fund for independent contractors, self-employed and part-time workers, as well as to expand access to a voluntary pooled capital pension plan for workers currently without coverage.

The coronavirus pandemic revealed how many of Canada’s precarious workers are also essential workers and how important their work is to the stability of the nation and maintaining some degree of normalcy, says Armine Yalnizyan, economist and Atkinson fellow on the Future of Workers.

Read: 81% of gig workers uncertain, worried about retirement: survey

Although some people in precarious roles are now considered essential workers, they’re also essentially disposable at some level, she says, so the pandemic has consequently shown the need for better protections for precarious workers.

“Having a response to how we deal with this type of work and provide certain protections that any other type of worker can enjoy should be on the front burner of every government. It is certainly not just the domain of the provincial government but also the federal government.”

A Statistics Canada report showed gig workers represented more than eight per cent of Canada’s workforce in 2016. In fact, B.C. had the highest share of gig workers than any other region at that time. If B.C.’s government addresses legislation to create a collective benefits fund, it would be the first province to take action of this kind to handle the growing issue of financial insecurity for these workers.

“The provincial government is recognizing that more and more workers no longer benefit from these kinds of pooled-risk schemes that help to make all of our lives more secure if we have access to them,” says Elizabeth Mulholland, chief executive officer of Prosper Canada.

Yalnizyan expects an even sharper rise in on-demand workers, which she says often happens in the immediate wake of a recession. This time, she points out, the move to gig work will likely see a significant spike since employers will be scrambling to minimize costs to make up for lost revenue.

Read: Canada’s growing gig workforce highlights need for portable benefits plan: report

With employers looking to cut back, consumers looking to maximize cost and convenience and employees looking to grab whatever work they can get, this trinity of needs could lead to an employer, consumer and employee-driven rise in on-demand employment, which is likely the most unregulated and insecure part of the labour market, notes Yalnizyan.

However, the B.C. NDP’s platform is light on details, so questions remain. Unless individuals are deemed employees, they don’t receive benefits, including statutory programs, she says, noting she’d like more context of what it means to have a fund and who’d be eligible for it, pointing out these answers are tied to legal, statutory and regulatory definitions.

Indeed, while the B.C. NDP’s plan is good news for precarious workers, the devil will be in the details, says Mulholland, adding she believes a lot of people will be interested in the result.

“The great beauty of our federation is that with all the provinces having their own jurisdiction in a number of these areas like employment standards there’s a lot of innovation across the country. When something works, it often gets taken up by other provinces, so B.C. seems to be the vanguard on this one.”

Read: Lack of benefits biggest challenge of gig economy: survey