Toronto MP Andrew Cash says artsies, freelancers and part-timers need a new deal. Photo by Jim Rankin / Getstock
You could easily imagine every pair of creative ears perking up across the city on May 23 when Davenport MP Andrew Cash gathered musicians, cultural workers and part-time employees at the Common on Bloor West to announce his new Urban Worker Strategy.
Talk about a labour of love. Cash has long advocated for the rights of freelancers, temp workers, contract workers and part-timers in a cross-section of industries, many in the cultural sector. Now, as a parliamentarian, he's morphing his concern into a private member's bill to be introduced this spring in the House of Commons.
The gist of the legislative bid is a call for expanded access to EI, improving the pension system for part-timers, restricting the laying off of workers and rehiring them as "independent contractors," income averaging for those with variable incomes, and ending the misuse of unpaid internships.
"We're talking about the fact that in a city like Toronto, almost 50 per cent of the people who live here cannot access stable, full-time jobs," Cash explained to me some days before the meeting, shivering in an unseasonably chilly May breeze.
He was referring to studies like the one published just three months ago by McMaster U and the United Way, which found that insecure work in the GTA has increased by 50 per cent in the past 20 years. A similar report last year by the Law Commission of Ontario revealed how provincial legislation has failed to keep up with this major shift in the workforce.
"The bill is about the issue of quality of employment," he said, pointing out that most in these insecure categories aren't paid what they're worth, receive no protections, have no pensions or other benefits and simply can't sustain a household.
Cash, of course, came into politics via the creative route himself, having spent 30-plus years as a musician, some of that time as a reporter for NOW Magazine, too, before getting elected in 2011. It's as if this initiative is a way of standing up for his past self and his musical buddies - and indeed all the city's arts workers who have struggled on without supports. Let's just say his knowledge is all too first-hand.
The Urban Worker Strategy, he suggests, "will support everyone from young graduates to taxi drivers, from salon workers to bricklayers, artists and entrepreneurs."
And judging from the response of Toronto's arts community, this effort is long overdue. "Cash's bill puts the focus on a group of workers who have been neglected for too long," says Stephen Waddell, national exec director of ACTRA. While the actors, stunt performers, singers and dancers in ACTRA's ranks have managed to win some security as a union, he says, others in creative roles have not.
"Most other freelance workers don't have those protections," Waddell reminds me, adding that additional improvements sought by ACTRA members will also be addressed by Cash's urban strategy - income averaging, for example.
"ACTRA performers are all self-employed contractors, and their incomes fluctuate year to year. Income tax averaging would help freelancers smooth things out and ensure greater tax fairness."
The Toronto Arts Council is in an especially authoritative position to take the economic pulse of Toronto's creative scene. Director of operations Susan Wright refers me to the org's statement of support for Cash's proposed reforms. Though the arts sector is all but indispensable to the city - over 100,000 people are employed in the culture business - TAC agrees that for individual creative workers, economically speaking, being an artist is damn near thankless.
"Toronto's arts sector includes many individuals without secure jobs, pensions or long-term prospects," the document says.
After all, their contributions don't just raise the city's profile and attract tourism and investment, TAC suggests, but they improve the quality of life for all Toronto's residents. Yet the incentive to remain in Toronto barely exists for artists or other precarious professionals, in the city's high-rent context. "Toronto Arts Council applauds these initiatives," it says.
At Social Planning Toronto, policy analyst Navjeet Sidhu is wary of making partisan endorsements but concurs that the meteoric rise of precarious work demands legislative responses. "Federal programs aren't keeping pace with changes in the labour markets," he says. "As employers double down, everything from labour organization to income protection suffers. There needs to be a political response, and employers need to adhere to basic standards."
Now Cash is faced with the challenge of getting some traction in the House, since private members' bills don't usually become law. But the attempt, he says, will redefine this creeping economic marginalization as a crucial issue.
"This is a framework bill, with the foundation and the studs of where we need to go," he says.