How we grow the Care Economy matters

On Thursday March 31, 2022, Armine presented this statement to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, as they undertake a study on labour shortages, working conditions and the care economy.  Watch it here (time stamp: 15:49:10 – 15:54:35).

Chair, members of the Committee, it is an honour to appear before you today, to address one of the most pressing public policy issues facing Canadians and their future quality of life: labour shortages and working conditions in the Care Economy. I thank Bonita Zarillo for tabling the motion to study the issue.

I am an economist, past President of the Canadian Association for Business Economics, and business columnist for the Toronto Star. I am also the Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers, and am indebted to the support of the Atkinson Foundation, which dedicates itself to advancing the economic and social justice principles of Joseph Atkinson, journalist and businessman, founder of one of Canada’s most popular and historically influential newspapers, the Toronto Star.

He knew then, as you do today: strong businesses are made stronger when their workers and customers are not scrambling to cover their basic needs. That requires strong governments, dedicated to ensuring that programs like healthcare, childcare and eldercare – which support the economy every bit as much as roads and bridges – are in good repair and fit for purpose.

The Care Economy is often viewed as a derivative, a “nice to have.” It is not. As the pandemic has made abundantly clear, it provides the foundation for all other economic activity. And it is an economic powerhouse, accounting for 12.6% of GDP – more important than auto and oil and gas, actually unparalleled by any other driver of the economy other than finance and real estate.

Care for those who are too young, too old, and too sick to work is always partly unpaid, a labour of love; but paid care now accounts for more than 1 in 5 jobs in Canada. Though every job could and should be a good job in this sector, many are underpaid and precarious. Maybe that’s because it is a female-dominated workforce, 90 percent or more workers are women in most occupations within health and education. This workforce is also disproportionately racialized. Viewed as essential, these workers are treated as essentially disposable.

Population aging means the Care Economy will grow. How it grows matters. We already have labour shortages in small towns and big cities alike. How we address those shortages matters, shaping how our economy and nation evolves. We can make every job a good job, and we would transform all of society in the doing. Or we can muddle through, mostly failing to solve problems. Right now, there is no more pressing labour market issue than how we prepare the Care Economy for the decades of population aging ahead, making today’s challenges pale in comparison.

To maximize our potential and minimize the impending challenges, we need a pan-Canadian strategy, so no province loses out.

Your earlier questions to other witnesses have presaged what that might entail:

  • Better wages and working conditions, which is quite possible since much of the Care Economy is publicly funded.
  • More timely and targeted training, including learning-while-earning programs.
  • Alignment of federal skills development policies for our own citizens with federal policies to attract newcomers, who are increasingly entering as temporary residents, not permanent residents who stay and build communities, not just fill jobs.
  • More rapid credentialing of internationally trained professionals, and more paths to permanence for temporary foreign workers (including the hundreds of thousands of temporary residents who enter beyond the TFW program).
  • Better use of technology to improve access to timely supports: more telehealth; use of AI to complement human skills and speed up diagnostics; improved use of e-health records to improve wait times and detect trends more quickly.
  • Better monitoring of temporary agencies and on-demand apps to reduce cost-overruns and increasing exploitation through scheduling; and modernizing labour laws to reduce the growing number of people who are misclassified as independent contractors.

We urgently need a national strategy for health human resources, and standards for long-term care, building on what we have learned through the early learning and child care bilateral agreements that have been signed over the past year.

I wish you Godspeed on your efforts to help inform and guide next steps, and am happy to take your questions.