Precarious work is a growing issue in the labour movement, as well as for legislators looking to understand this quickly growing segment of the working class in Canada. Over 2 million Canadians identify themselves as relying on precarious or temporary work—and more than half of new jobs created in the last decade are precarious. Between 1989 and 2007, “self-employed” workers increased nearly 45 per cent.
Contract, temporary, or unstable work is the reality for many households in Canada, and these workers are being asked to live on less. A 2013 United Way report stated that, “those in the precarious cluster earn 46% less than those in the secure cluster and their household income is 34% lower.”
In a 2005 report, Oxfam found that “women are disproportionately affected by precarious employment. In fact, women are faced with the ‘triple burden,’ including their roles as mothers, as workers, and as community advocates. Not only do women suffer the consequences of precarious work—so do their families and communities.” Women, particularly women of colour, make less than their male counterparts working the same number of hours.
Currently, some federal political leaders are creating a call to action. In the launch of her campaign on precarious labour in the millennial generation, #GenYAsksY, NDP MP Niki Ashton (Critic for Jobs, Employment and Workforce Development) commented: “the rise of precarious employment is driving growing inequality and threatens the future of an entire generation. The government can no longer ignore the challenges facing millions of young Canadians who lack job security and basic benefits.”
Precarious labour issues intersect with gender and race. The NDP campaign reports that, “rates of precarious employment are higher among already marginalized groups, including women (especially single mothers), racialized Canadians, new immigrants, aboriginal persons, and persons with disabilities.” People who traditionally face significant challenges finding stable employment are left with little choice but to accept precarious working conditions.
Stephanie Nakitsas is one of the co-founders of The Urban Worker Project. The project is aiming to build a community for urban workers to raise issues and advocate for a better future for urban workers. “A lot of studies have shown that more and more women are working freelance, or are working in a precarious way. Sometimes that’s by choice, but sometimes it is by necessity. Because affordable childcare is so hard to access in our country, with the exception of Quebec, a lot of women are choosing to do this work because by freelancing, they have the schedule flexibility you might not have in other work. The traditional office, 9 to 5, doesn’t always work for women because of these commitments—the work that they have in the home or the dependents that they have.”
Industries such as academia and social services, where in past decades women have found greater opportunities for stable income, are now employing contract workers at greater rates. Casual or part time work means no or few benefits and forces people, often young women trying to break into those places, to manage a short term plan that limits their ability to go back to school or care for dependents.
Canadian labour legislation is based in an era when many men were full time wage earners and women were full time house managers. Eroded social structures and policy have tipped the economic scales even further in the favour of large employers with little connection to the communities in which they operate. Cuts to Employment Insurance and assistance programs have resulted in a desperate workforce that has no choice but to rely on precarious work, and that precarious work ensures that employees are without benefits. With no legislation ensuring all workers have the ability to pay into EI or other assistance plans, many workers have no safety net should they be temporarily or permanently unable to work.
Workers are organizing and fighting back to level the field. The Urban Worker Project was formed in Toronto in early 2016 and is “calling on government to broaden who is covered under employment standards legislation so that solo self-employed, freelance and contract workers can access better pay, benefits and protections”.
Women have long had to balance economic precarity and gender inequality in their struggle. But with precarious labour on the rise, there is a growing solidarity with feminist economic asks like a living wage, affordable childcare, lowered post-secondary education costs and access to social infrastructure.
(This piece was originally published July 26th, 2016 in the GUTS magazine blog.)