We conceptualize precarious jobs as forms of work for remuneration which have one or more dimensions of labour market insecurity that make them substantially different from the “functions”[7] of the SER – specifically, its association with access to training, regulatory protections and social benefits, decent wages, and a social wage.[8] In particular, precarious jobs are characterized typically by high levels of uncertainty, low income, a lack of control over the labour process, and limited access to regulatory protections. The presence of one or more of these dimensions of labour market insecurity results in these jobs being of undesirable quality. There is a relationship between workers and jobs too; those workers who remain in precarious jobs may themselves be or become marginalized or perceived as precarious in relation to the larger society (e.g., on account of sex/gender divisions of labour or citizenship status); hence, the relationship between precarious jobs and so-called vulnerable workers.[9]  However, this report centres on jobs, rather than workers.

One aspect of our analysis focuses on various forms of employment. Building on previous empirical findings for Canada and elsewhere, we take solo self-employment (without employees) to be more precarious than employer self-employment.[10] Without the protection of a larger and/or more diverse company, this subset of the self-employed are much more vulnerable to economic pressures; even a brief downturn in business can lead to unemployment or poverty.[11] Further, many solo self-employed are, in practice, workers, including independent or dependent contractors who have been deemed to be self-employed in order to limit their access to equivalent levels of workplace protections and benefits as employees.[12] We also understand temporary forms of employment, which are diverse and include contract/term, seasonal, casual and on-call employment, to be more precarious than permanent forms of employment as they are uncertain by definition.[13] As employers pursue ‘flexibility-enhancing’ labour strategies, temporary or contract employment also affords them the opportunity to reduce their labour costs by eliminating workers, without the need to provide cause for termination or severance pay. Increasingly, employees are given multiple, recurring temporary contracts; although the positions they hold may have become a permanent part of the organization, theseworkers are required to periodically reapply for their jobs. Many temporary employees are also excluded from a full range of workplace benefits, including health benefits and pension plans.[14] We also take part-time to typically be more precarious than full-time employment since, like temporary as opposed to permanent workers, those that are part-time often have less job security (e.g., due to seniority rules), fewer social benefits and statutory entitlements (as they may fail to meet minimum hours thresholds) and less influence in their work environment. We therefore include an analysis of part-time and temporary paid employment and solo self-employment in this paper. At the same time, we recognize that precarious employment is not synonymous with non-standard employment.  Rather, some non-standard employment is relatively secure and some full-time permanent employment is precarious. Precariousness can cut across all kinds of work for remuneration – much depends on the nature and organization of labour market regulations.[15] For this reason, we pursue an integrated analysis that places dimensions of labour market insecurity on a par with forms of employment.

The dimensions of labour market insecurity examined in this paper include low income, a lack of control over the labour process, and limited access to regulatory protections. As in all research using secondary data, we are limited by the indicators available to us in the dataset. As indicators of low income, we use jobs which pay low wages and have little to no non-wage compensation. We define a ‘low wage’ job as one in which a worker makes less than 1.5 times the minimum wage. The minimum wage is designed to set a basic minimum standard of living for workers. In fact, many wage rates are tied to the minimum wage; often workers gain wage increases for seniority or supervisory duties relative to the minimum wage. Table 2.1 shows the progression of minimum wage in Ontario and how it relates to the ‘low wage’ cut-off used here.[16] The Low-Income Measure (LIM) is a conceptual benchmark established by Statistics Canada that adopts a more nuanced approach to measuring poverty than the Low-Income Cutoff (LICO). The LIM is an internationally comparable benchmark that represents a fixed percentage (50%) of the median adjusted household income, adjusted to account for household size and location.[17] The LIM, shown as a reference point in Table 2.1, is for a single person in Canada living in a large urban area; more than half of Ontarians live in large urban areas. Based on this reference, our cutoff of 1.5 times the minimum wage provides a reasonable, indexed measure for identifying workers in low wage jobs.


* Based on working 40 hours per week, 52 weeks a year
** Based on before tax income for those living in a CMA of 500,000 or more;[18] Adjusted from 1992 dollars using the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator

Another measure of precariousness is having little non-wage compensation.  Based on the measures available, we use the presence or absence of an employer pension plan as an indicator of this dimension of labour market insecurity. Although the presence or absence of extended health, vision or dental benefits provides another indicator of non-wage compensation, these data are not available.

We also contend that jobs that lack a full range of labour protections are more likely to be precarious. This situation applies to the self-employed, and is also more likely to apply to those who work in small firms, where the scope of employment standards may be less comprehensive than in large firms (e.g., provisions for termination and severance may be better for workers who are part of a mass layoff in large firm as is the case in British Columbia) and their application and enforcement tends to be more lax,[19] and where employers are not required to abide by equal pay and employment equity legislation.[20]  In this analysis, we consider those who work in firms of less than twenty people to be precarious along this dimension.  Small firms are also more likely to be subject to economic fluctuations, leading to layoffs and or termination of workers in times of economic downturn.  Finally, jobs in which workers have limited control over the labour process tend to be more precarious. In this analysis, these jobs are identified as those which are not unionized and/or where workers are not covered by a collective agreement.

Ultimately, we combine these four measures (low income, no pension plan, small firm size, and no union coverage) to create a composite measure of precariousness. Although we recognize the existence of a continuum of precarious jobs,[21] this composite measure, which does not prioritize one dimension over another and thus rejects the idea of weighting dimensions, deems that workers who indicate that their job has at least three of these four features have precarious jobs.

A substantial literature indicates that people from socially disadvantaged