Precariously Employed: A Ballot-box Issue

This article is from the WLUFA Advocate April 2016 4.1.

Kimberly Ellis-Hale, Sociology

Signs are up, debates are underway, and town halls are being held across the country – yes, it is Federal election time in Canada. Pollsters and pundits are having their heyday as parties jostle for the lead or compete for a foothold. All the while the door-to-door canvassers – dedicated and un-sung – continue their work.

One such person knocked at my door (despite a large lawn sign proclaiming my support for a competing party). I encouraged my son, a first-time voter, to hear what the young man had to say.

I was half-listening to their discussion, mentally checking off the various issue boxes, until it turned to postsecondary education. I cannot begin to express my disappointment when I heard the canvasser tell my son that “it wasn’t really a federal issue.” At that point, I joined in their discussion.

If one takes but a cursory glance at the parcelling of responsibilities for post-secondary education, it may be easy to miss the hand of the federal government beyond its funding transfers. Closer inspection, however, reveals its role in postsecondary student grants, loans, private savings plans, tax credits and debt. An even closer look reveals its power when it comes to infrastructure and equipment funding, support for research and innovation, and opportunities taken or missed to develop evidence-based social, environmental and economic policies.

However, even the closest examination fails to unearth any evidence that the federal government understands its responsibility for, or accountability to, the growing army of precariously employed Canadians – and in particular, to the per-contract academics who are increasingly used to prop up Canada’s postsecondary system.

If one accepts that a postsecondary education will be required for over two
thirds of future jobs, then it seems reasonable that those tasked with providing it deserve some attention paid to the conditions of their employment. Reasonable job security, wage parity, health benefits and pension prospects – in other words all of the hallmarks of a “good job” – are currently beyond the reach of precariously employed academics. Ironically, this is an employment category we are supposed to be helping our students avoid! If postsecondary education is supposed to provide the pathway to a prosperous economic future, then why are so many who work to provide it not themselves benefiting from it?

While the federal government may not have direct responsibility for the way in which our tax dollars are spent within the postsecondary sector, we have tasked them with providing leadership. As leaders, ensuring the responsible handling of funds ear-marked for education is not outside of a federal mandate. Sorry Mr. Canvasser, but it is a “federal issue.”
Here is my offer: I am willing to replace my particular party lawn sign with that of any party that shows the political will to address the issue of Canada’s growing reliance on precarious labour – and to present us with effective strategies for ending that reliance in all sectors, including the education sector.

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