The Canadian Labour Congress is asking Statistics Canada to change the way it reports on unemployment, saying a more fulsome analysis of the data it collects would paint a very different picture of the country's labour market.
The labour group is presenting its findings to the Commons finance committee later Thursday, with officials of the national statistical agency also present and giving testimony.
The CLC is making its position known a day before the agency issues its latest labour market findings on Friday, which many economists say will show about 15,000 jobs were created in February, with the unemployment rate hovering at about seven per cent.
And that's the problem, says the CLC.
The agency's reporting of the past year suggests nothing much has happened in the Canadian labour market when, in fact, plenty has occurred, much of it bad.
Statistics Canada numbers have shown that Canada has recouped all jobs lost during the 2008-09 recession and portrays the country as outperforming the United States and most of Europe.
'As work patterns change, with greater use of part-time employees and other forms of precarious labour, the headline unemployment rate becomes less and less useful on its own' - CLC economist Angella MacEwen
But in a paper released prior to the afternoon committee session, the CLC argues that while Statistics Canada's approach may be accurate it is not detailed enough to convey the true landscape of the labour market.
"The economy has not created enough jobs, and those that have been created are disproportionately precarious ... more Canadians are unemployed, marginally attached, or simply not engaging in the labour force," the CLC report states.
The biggest omission, says the CLC, is the category economists call "underemployment," which captures part-time workers who want to be full time, along with the involuntary self-employed and other underutilized workers.
That data shows underemployment is twice the 7.0 per cent unemployment rate and, among youth — those in the 15 to 24 year age group — it is almost 28 per cent. As well, there are discouraged workers who have stopped looking for work but would take a job if one could be found.
"As work patterns change, with greater use of part-time employees and other forms of precarious labour, the headline unemployment rate becomes less and less useful on its own," says senior economist Angella MacEwen, the report's author.
"Statistics Canada produces that information, we just want them to publicize it and make it more available to the public."
MacEwen notes that over 80 per cent of the 102,000 jobs created last year — a tiny number in historic terms — were part-time. The problem is especially acute among youth, she adds.
Youth are left behind
TD Bank economist Francis Fong, who tracks youth unemployment, says a "deeper look" into what is happening to the vulnerable group would be useful, although the data Statistics Canada does release already paints a bleak picture, he adds.
The most telling number is that the employment rate — the number working as a percentage of the total in the age group — is down to 54.5 per cent from about 60 per cent in 2008, he explained.
"The data we have does indicate youth is really suffering this time around," he said. "The fact of the matter is there are five percentage points of the entire population that used to be working that are no longer working; we're seeing a structural drop in the demand of youth labour."
And there is little data capturing the number of university graduates who may have found jobs, but not in their field of expertise, or are working gratis in internships.
Statistics Canada labour force manager Christel Le Petit said the agency does collect a number of indicators related to underemployment, including involuntary part-timers, marginally attached and discouraged searchers. The data is available in the Cansim database, he said, although it not captured in the labour market survey report the agency publishes each month.
MacEwen said better information is just the first step in tackling the problem of underemployment, adding that governments need an "employment strategy" to create better paid and more secure jobs.