A. The Rise of Precarious Work

Over the past several decades there has been a significant increase in part-time, temporary and casual forms of work. This type of work lacks security and provides workers with limited benefits. The phenomenon has been a contributing factor in the rising rates of income inequality in many OECD countries, as well as a contributor to social unrest in some.7 On the one hand, businesses are advantaged by the ability to increase or decrease workforces with ease. This, some argue, has allowed the Canadian economy to respond to the financial crises more favourably than more regulated European economies. Furthermore, some workers undoubtedly choose this type of work for the flexibility it offers.8 On the other hand, many workers at the lower end of the wage and skill spectrum are losing ground in insecure employment they do not choose and struggling to make a decent wage.9 The nature of precarious work has also been affected by the global migration of workers that provides challenges to many countries including Canada.10

Although the changing nature of work and related migration of workers have been developing for several decades, the global economic crisis has brought it into sharper focus. Canada’s economic position may have weathered the economic downturn better than many other countries. Nevertheless, Canada faces large deficits, lower revenues, high unemployment and low economic projections.11 The current state of the economy is affecting businesses and therefore jobs.12 Governments are seeking to reduce deficits while at the same time continuing to stimulate business and create jobs. Against this backdrop, initiatives to improve supports for vulnerable workers are not only imperative but must be feasible and cost-effective.

In this project, the LCO has considered the impact of the law on workers engaged in precarious forms of work (“vulnerable workers”). Both “precarious work” and “vulnerable worker” are defined in the LCO’s Background Paper:

Precarious work is characterized by lack of continuity, low wages, lack of benefits and possibly greater risk of injury and ill health…Measures of precariousness are level of earnings, level of employer-provided benefits, degree of regulatory protection and degree of control or influence within the labour process…The major types of precarious work are self-employment, part-time (steady and intermittent) and temporary.

It has been said that “the sector in which workers are employed, the size of the enterprise in which they work, the non-standard nature of their employment contract and their demographic circumstances are markers that help to identify them as ‘vulnerable’”. In this paper, vulnerable workers are those whose work can be described as “precarious” and whose vulnerability is underlined by their “social location” (that is, by their ethnicity, sex, ability and immigration status).
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Therefore, vulnerability in this context refers not to the workers themselves but to the situation facing them, both in their work environment and in other aspects of their lives such as their health, their families, their ability to participate in their community and their integration into Ontario life.

Among the characteristics of precarity identified in the description above, earning low income is key. For example, a high income self-employed person working contract to contract (such as a consultant) would not be considered a “vulnerable worker”. We should note that our definition does include part-time or casual workers who may earn a good hourly rate but, in total, earn a low income due to insufficient hours. The project is concerned with the increasing numbers of working poor in Canada, many of whom work in precarious conditions.14 Low income jobs often have few, if any, benefits, such as extended medical benefits.

When coupled with low income, job insecurity is also one of the important features of precarious employment. The fear of losing one’s job may arise from industry-wide phenomena such as automation of the workforce or economic pressures. Temporary foreign workers are precariously employed where their fear of being sent back to their home country prevents them from exercising legal protections to which they are entitled; they are afraid that their job is not “secure” even within the limited work period of foreign worker programs.

This group of workers experiencing low income combined with other measures of precarity has been labelled the “precariat” by Guy Standing who describes them as a growing social-economic class:

…in many countries, at least a quarter of the adult population is in the precariat. This is not just a matter of having insecure employment, of being in jobs of limited duration and with minimal labour protection, although all this is widespread. It is being in a status that offers no sense of career, no sense of secure occupational identity and few, if any, entitlements to the state and enterprise benefits that several generations of those who saw themselves as belonging to the industrial proletariat or the salariat had come to expect as their due.15

Although we have focussed on women, as well as recent immigrants and racialized persons, we recognize that precarious employment is not limited to these particular groups, a point we discuss further below. This was graphically illustrated in a response we received to the Interim Report from the wife of a man who “has been unable to secure a full-time permanent job for 4 years, despite having valuable skills and excellent work history.” She discusses how he was asked to perform work for which he was untrained and that he considered dangerous, and he was offered temporary work for barely more than minimum wage where the collective agreement provided a much higher rate. As she observes, “[t]he situation has become desperate for many people, and has put a tremendous strain on individuals and their families….It is not just stressful, it is demoralizing.”16

The LCO’s consultation process in this project reinforced themes surrounding vulnerable workers and precarious work, as identified by many commentators, including: i) a lack of knowledge by both employers and employees of employee rights and employer responsibilities; ii) the lack of an expeditious method of complaint resolution; iii) barriers to the enforcement of workers’ rights; and iv) the need for more broadly applicable basic minimum employment rights. There is significant concern, in particular, about the lack of representation for workers or workers’ “voice” among those in precarious work.17 There is awareness of the changing nature of work, but some question as to whether the existing regulatory regime is responsive to this change. For employers, the standard employment relationship may no longer be the normative model for jobs, but many workers are still searching for stable, well-paid, permanent jobs with benefits.

The transformation that is taking place in the world of work is dynamic and even experts are uncertain where it will land. Governments, businesses, community agencies and unions each have a role to play to reach out to vulnerable workers who are finding themselves left behind. This Report will outline the extent of the problem, who it affects and how, and will suggest steps for the short and long-term that can be taken to respond to the needs of vulnerable workers.

B. The Economic Backdrop

As western economies transitioned away from reliance on manufacturing and agriculture toward reliance on service and knowledge-based industries in the 1970s, a trend began across the labour markets in those economies – including Canada – towards increased levels of part-time and temporary work at the expense of full-time positions.18 This shift was further amplified as women, who work in a disproportionate share of part-time and temporary positions, continued to enter the labour force in significant numbers. Analyzing data from 1999-2009, Noack and Vosko found a stable condition of what they called “persistent precarity” in the overall structure of the Ontario labour force in terms of the proportion of full-time, part-time and self-employed workers.19 However, using data extended further out from the recent recession (2000-2011), the Ministry of Labour indicates that temporary work, in particular, continued to increase gradually but significantly into the 2000s. In 2000, 8.9 percent of employed workers in Ontario were temporary and by 2011, this figure was 10.9 percent.20

Furthermore, the recent economic recession has impacted the growth of more precarious forms of employment. The Canadian Labour Congress, for instance, has argued that “while the total number of employed Canadians has returned to prerecession levels, there has been a change in the quality of jobs. There are more part-timers than before the recession, and more self-employed workers. Most importantly, there has been a significant increase in temporary work.”21 This conclusion appears borne out by OECD statistics indicating across all OECD economies the percentage of workers engaged in part-time work increased from 12 percent in 2001 to 16.5 percent in 2011, while the percentage of those engaged in temporary work increased from 11 percent in 2001 to 12 percent in 2011. For Canada specifically, the percentage of part-time workers increased from 18.1 percent to 19.9 percent and the percentage of temporary workers increased from 12.8 percent to 13.7 percent across the same time frame.22

This suggests then, that despite the relatively stable structure of the Canadian labour market in the early twenty-first century, it is beginning to undergo another transition that is likely to increase the numbers of Canadians involved in precarious forms of employment.

This section describes some of the pressures being experienced in the economy and labour market that contribute to this rise in precarious employment. Ontario’s labour market is influenced by economic trends which have transformed the way business is carried out. Globalization and free trade have resulted in the creation of global markets. Increasingly, many Ontario businesses must compete with emerging economies which have the advantage of lower wage labour and relatively few regulatory controls. The technological revolution that has occurred over the past three decades has resulted in sharply reduced communications and transportation costs for those importing from elsewhere. For example, in the LCO’s consultations, Ontario vegetable farmers reported competing with producers in Central and South American countries in addition to their traditional competitors in California.23 This may be less of an influence, however, where local services do not compete beyond local markets.

These trends, accompanied by the global recession that commenced in 2008, have exerted a heavy pressure on businesses to set lower consumer prices which, in turn, have caused businesses to restructure their workforce as a cost-cutting strategy. Maintaining a flexible workforce allows businesses to quickly respond to competitive pressures. Flexibility is achieved by relying on more temporary or part-time employees and hiring fewer full-time permanent employees. In some cases, employers may offer job-sharing arrangements to existing employees in order to prevent lay-offs.24 Or businesses may outsource some functions altogether, thereby reducing the overall size of their workforce but increasing their reliance on contract workers (often former employees).25 The result has been the fissuring of the labour market.26 The increase in smaller, fragmented workplaces means that there are fewer in-house opportunities for employees to advance, leaving many to stagnate in entry-level positions.27 While workers’ advocates often regard flexibility in purely negative terms, it should be noted that businesses consider it to be a legitimate business choice permitting them to organize in ways that are responsive to economic turmoil. Some workers appreciate the advantages of flexibility though not its disadvantages but are sometimes willing to accept the trade-off. The legitimacy of both flexibility and security has been recognized in the European c