The foremost conclusion of this investigation into the dynamics of precarious employment in Ontario is continuity: over the last decade, even though there were changes in the labour market, such as continued decline in manufacturing, recession, and decollectivization, measured statistically the magnitude and nature of precarious jobs persisted.
Echoing previous research findings centering on Canada as a whole, in Ontario a continuum of precarious forms of employment exists, whereby full-time permanent jobs exhibit the fewest and part-time temporary jobs exhibit the greatest dimensions of labour market insecurity. Part-time temporary jobs are characterized by the largest number of features of labour market insecurity followed by jobs that are part time and other jobs that are temporary. Furthermore, the forms of employment characterized most by precariousness are also those in which many women and single parents (part-time forms) as well as members of particular ethnic groups (full- and part-time temporary forms) participate.
Precarious jobs also tend to cluster in the private rather than the public sector, where accommodation and food services industries, agriculture, and ‘other services’ tend to be host to those that are most insecure. Occupational groups experiencing high levels of insecurity include chefs, cooks and other workers in the food and beverage industry, and retail sales clerks and cashiers, as well as workers in occupations in the primary industry. For these occupational groups, low levels of education are correlated with precarious jobs, except for some women in certain types of service work, where the educational qualifications of those in service oriented careers may be undervalued. In addition to women, racialized women, and workers from particular ethnic backgrounds tend to be concentrated in industries occupational groups in which many jobs are characterized by dimensions of labour market insecurity; for example, Southeast Asian and Filipino workers in accommodation and food services industries.
Workers in precarious jobs in Ontario are also much more likely to be women than men due largely to women’s concentration in part-time and temporary forms of employment. Sharp gender disparities nevertheless exist in full-time permanent jobs indicative of the ‘feminization of employment norms’ or a gendered ‘harmonizing down’ in which more jobs in the labour market resemble so-called ‘women’s work’ deviating from the SER– i.e., not all jobs resembling the dominant form of the SER are characterized access to training, regulatory protections and social benefits, decent wages, and a social wage. Other findings pertinent to gender relations reinforce this conclusion, including that workers who are single parents, a majority of whom are women, are more likely than workers in other family forms to be in precarious jobs.
Racialized workers also tend to be more likely to be in precarious jobs than their same-gender counterparts. Workers of Chinese decent in particular tend to be located in jobs with low wages, no pensions, and no union representation even though many hold full-time jobs. Give that people from Chinese backgrounds are the largest ethnic group in the Ontario labour force, this is a particularly worrisome finding. These results reflect those of another recent survey conducted by the Chinese Interagency Network in Toronto, which found that many Chinese workers were not aware of their workplace rights or labour regulations.
A. Reducing precarious jobs in Ontario: Recommendations
A number of recommendations for legal reform flow logically from these findings. We make four interrelated proposals below, selecting but a few that are potentially of high impact should they be taken up in combination by law- and policy-makers. We call for an integrated approach to limiting precarious employment in Ontario since our analysis underscores the multidimensional nature of problem, highlighting the necessity of multipronged solutions.
1. Improve the wage package in Ontario
Our findings suggest that in 2008, among those with no union coverage and no pension plan, a quarter of workers made $10 or less and half made $14 or less. Our profile of precarious jobs in Ontario demonstrates that more is at work than simply low wages, and yet adjustments in wages are crucial to pulling workers out of precarious jobs. To this end, raising the minimum wage such that everyone who is engaged in ongoing full-time employment (40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year), which could be drawn from multiple jobs, should earn enough to be above the LIM for a single person in an urban area is crucial. This corresponds to a minimum wage of $14.55 an hour. This sum reflects a “low income” line (as opposed to a poverty line) consistent with a fair minimum wage policy to protect workers against inflation (i.e., providing for a cost-of-living increase and thus financial stability for workers in Ontario). The LIM provides a useful measure here because it is a relative measure; that is, it is based on 50% of the median adjusted family income, and recalculated annually. As a result, it fluctuates based on changes in the population economic family income, without being tied to more volatile measures, such as the inflation rate. In addition, the LIM is calculated separately for families living in rural areas and cities of different sizes. As a result, it is more sensitive to the context of income than many other low income measures. Using this adjusted minimum wage, single workers living in an urban area would need to work approximately 27-28 hours a week to fall above Statistics Canada’s Low-Income Cut-Off line, a de facto poverty line calculated on the basis of spending a higher than average proportion of income on necessities like food, shelter and clothing. This would ensure that part-time workers especially, were less likely to live in poverty. This is particularly important, given the unequal distribution of part-time work throughout the labour force, and the clustering of some disadvantaged groups (women, recent immigrants) in part-time work.
In addition, measures encouraging employers to augment the wage package are required; one indirect mechanism, which forms the basis for our second linked recommendation, involves legislative changes supporting unionization in light of the union wage premium evident in Ontario as well as unionized workers’ greater access to social benefits, such as pensions. In particular, the higher proportion of racialized workers in jobs with no pension and no unionization is worrying, in that it suggests that racialized workers are less likely to be hired into jobs where workers have a modicum of control over the labour process, reflecting continued and systemic discrimination. With regard to the wage package, one strategy for counteracting this systemic discrimination is by providing structural incentives for more employers to provide access to pension plans, and thus decreasing inequity for current workers, and ultimately, for retirees. Unionization provides one avenue for increasing worker control and providing access to more social benefits, but similar effects could be achieved with other models of worker organization, government-sponsored incentives or legislation.
2. Promote greater worker control over the labour process via improved access to unionization and other workplace regulations fostering labour market security
By far, the most common dimension of labour market insecurity characterizing precarious jobs in Ontario is a lack of control over the labour process, measured in this report as the absence of union coverage or coverage under a collective agreement. This conclusion underscores the need to not only redress continued de-collectivization and/or stagnation of labour relations in Ontario but to reverse this trend. As indicated above, this recommendation is linked to the need to improve pensions and wages among workers in precarious jobs since unions representing workers collectively, as opposed to individual workers negotiating singly, are more likely to secure such social benefits as well as better wages. Other vehicles for improving worker control are also, however, important to pursue. Foremost is perhaps improving workplace regulations benefiting union and non-union workers, specifically widening the scope of coverage under employment standards legislation and improving their enforcement, which brings us to our third recommendation.
Additionally, it is high time to introduce mechanisms of broader-based bargaining for self-employed and other workers in precarious paid employment who face challenges to unionizing and/or, at a minimum, to benefiting from collectively agreed standards. Meeting the former challenge necessitates, among other things, providing for regional or geographical and/or occupational unionisms through legislation and policy (e.g., permitting multi-employer agreements applicable to a given sector); such measures would respond to problems created by majority unionism now in operation and inhibiting organizing among the precariously employed, especially in small workplaces. Overcoming the latter hurdle could involve juridical extension of labour relations and standards of the sort operating in Quebec’s decree system, which allows for the extension of the terms of a collective agreement across a sector to cover both unionized and non-unionized workers although a quite significant limitation is that it does not regulate a system of representation for workers.
3. Expand the scope of employment standards (ES) and enforce them
The preceding analysis by form of employment reveals a relationship between certain inclusions and exclusions from minimum employment standards in Ontario and the persistently high numbers of workers in part-time and temporary jobs. As illustrated above, although precarious employment is not synonymous with non-standard employment, much depends on the nature and organization of labour market regulations. In Ontario, for instance, many solo self-employed workers are excluded from protection because of their employment status, that is, they are either treated as dependent or independent contractors unlike in the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act which extends protection to the many self-employed workers in precarious jobs by defining a worker as “a person who I paid to perform work or supply service” and thus covers more workers dependent on their capacity to work. Similarly, workers in different types of temporary employment lack full coverage under the Employment Standards Act (e.g., seasonal workers, especially in agriculture and workers with insufficient job tenure do not benefit fully from termination and severance provisions and provisions for joint and several liability required by temporary agency workers are limited) yet there is no principled reason why the Act could not be modified to apply fully to these workers, nor is their justification for tying other statutory and employer social benefits to tenure in a single employee-employer relationship. Finally, part-time workers do not benefit from provisions for equal treatment with workers in other forms of employment doing similar work, an omission that could be rectified by drawing on provisions contained in parallel legislation in Quebec. These are but a few ways in which the scope of ES should be reformulated that could reduce the by no means necessary correlation between so-called non-standard forms of employment and precariousness that respond to the new structure of the labour force.
At the same time, also consistent with our leading premise that some full-time permanent jobs can be precarious and the overarching conceptualization of precarious employment as a multidimensional phenomenon, our investigation highlights the erosion of the full-time permanent job for certain groups of workers, such as women, including racialized women, recent immigrants, as well as among workers with relatively low levels of education. These are workers who have faced labour market discrimination of various sorts historically, and are experiencing obstacles to accessing good jobs and a full range of labour protections at present. For these workers, ostensibly covered fully by ES, as well as workers in other forms of employment, their enforcement is essential. This conclusion is borne out in a parallel study on ES and OHS enforcement in Ontario included in this working paper series, which finds deterioration in both enforcement regimes through policy analysis and a review of administrative practices. Indeed, in the case of ES, this study documents a backlog in complaints, insufficient numbers of labour inspectors, an overly narrow approach to labour inspection, and limitations in the governance of penalties for violators and collections processes as well as highlights larger problems with a complaint-based ES system, especially during an economic downturn (i.e., workers are reluctant to complain for fear of job loss, with little certainty that they will obtain sufficient representation, and/or without any guarantee they will receive the compensation they deserve).
Collectively, such findings reflect our conclusion that ‘the more things change the more they stay the same.’ They help explain why it is that, from a statistical vantage point, precarious jobs in Ontario can look somewhat similar (or only marginally worse) in 2009 to what they were in 1999 despite the deterioration that has occurred in labour market regulations.
4. Improve the social measurement of job quality and precariousness
Worsening conditions for many workers may not be visible statistically because of limitations in the way the data are collected (sampled) and the ways that job quality is measured. As a result, many national surveys related to job quality provide only an incomplete picture, which makes it difficult to develop comprehensive and effective policy recommendations. Politically, the limited knowledge available about job quality makes it easier to ignore or discount changes in people’s working conditions, and harder for advocates to track declines and lobby for improvements.
One clear limitation of using national survey data to measure job quality is the reliance on household telephone sampling, which does not capture the most marginal workers. Research on the United States shows that young people, people living in poverty, and renters are much more likely to have only cell phones. These groups are also more likely to be in precarious jobs, but their experiences are not captured in telephone surveys. Similarly, people living in transient or communal housing arrangements (such as migrant workers) are unlikely to have a household telephone. In order to capture the experiences of these more marginal workers accurately, non-probability sampling approaches should also be used in conjunction with these probability sampling methods.
In addition, most national labour surveys, such as the SLID, ask questions about the structure of jobs, but collect little information about respondents’ perceptions of job quality. The indicators used here – low wages, no pensions plan, no union coverage, and being in a small firm – are commonly used because they constitute so-called ‘objective’ measures of job quality. They fail to capture sufficiently the complex, and multi-faceted experience of working in a precarious or poor quality job. The addition of some ‘subjective’ measures of job quality would help to unearth more fully workers perceptions of their working conditions and their integration into their workplace. For instance, questions about how long workers expect to be in their current job, whether their skills are valued in their current position, and whether they feel their work could be done by others in their establishment would provide good indicators of job stability of precariousness. Another potentially useful measure of job stability could be the amount of training that an employee receives when starting their job, since this represents the amount of investment an employer makes in a new employee (and also factors into the potential cost of replacing them). More comprehensive measures of job quality in quantitative surveys– such as information about sense of control, efficacy, work scheduling, and the enforcement of labour standards – would also help to better evaluate how the experience of working in Ontario is changing. More broadly, of course, a balance between quantitative and qualitative research is required such that the latter is developed to respond to predictable limits of the former.
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