The nature of employment is evolving. Over the past several decades, the standard employment relationship, based on full-time, secure work, where employees have access to good wages and benefits, is being eroded.  In its place, there has been a significant increase in part-time, temporary and casual forms of employment.

These changes have been fuelled by economic factors, technology, global competition and changes to the way businesses are structured. Workers at the lower end of the wage and skill spectrum find themselves struggling to make a decent living, with few or no benefits, little job security and minimal control over their work conditions.

Vulnerable Workers

Although “vulnerable workers” – those engaged in precarious work – can be found across society, women, racialized persons, immigrants, Aboriginal persons, persons with disabilities, older adults and youth are disproportionately represented.

  • Racialized workers experience higher rates of unemployment and precarious work. Racialized women form one of the most vulnerable groups.
  • Single parents, often women, racialized workers and recent immigrants are most likely to find themselves in part-time, temporary work. Among part-time workers, women are more likely to be low-paid.
  • Members of visible minorities and women are more likely to be found in own-account self-employment as compared to other forms of self-employment. Women in own-account self-employment have particularly high rates of part-time work.
  • Newcomers to Canada are disproportionately affected by precarious work. They are more likely than other Ontarians to be engaged in temporary, part-time work. Newcomers who are initially employed in precarious jobs tend to remain in such work and having insecure immigration status significantly contributes to precariousness.

Impact of Precarious Work

Studies consistently link precarious employment to negative physical and mental health outcomes.

  • Precarious work is more likely to involve health and safety risks, particularly for recent immigrants who are more likely than Canadian-born workers to be engaged in physically demanding work.  Risks also arise from lack of experience or training, lack of knowledge about occupational health and safety rights, and fear of losing one’s job or, in some cases, being deported.
  • Precarious work can cause stress due to job insecurity, the pressure of holding multiple jobs, irregular or long hours, insecure visa status and lack of legal protections.
  • Precarious workers may also suffer health consequences as a result of their lower income.  Low wages also affect workers’ access to safe transportation and sufficiently nutritious food. Low pay often leads to working more than one job and long hours, which, in turn, increase susceptibility to illness and injury and have negative impacts on family life affecting children and communities.
  • Due to low wages and lack of benefits, precarious workers often have difficulty accessing medicine, particularly prescription drugs.
  • Pregnant women engaged in precarious work may not be covered by statutory personal emergency leave provisions and, as a result, may not obtain necessary medical care. 
  • Precarious workers have limited opportunities to access training or education to upgrade their skills. Without training, they are less likely to find more stable and better paid work. This contributes to long-term economic vulnerability and perpetuates the cycle of precarious work.

Vulnerable Workers and the Law

In Ontario, the main statutes affecting vulnerable workers are:

  • the Employment Standards Act, sets out the minimum rights of workers and obligations of employers, and regulates a wide variety of work-related issues, including minimum wages, hours, vacation, leaves of absence, termination and severance pay;
  • the Occupational Health and Safety Act, promotes workplace health and safety and establishes an internal responsibility system under which employers have the duty to take reasonable precautions to protect workers and workers are required to work safely and comply with the regulations;
  • the Employment Protections for Foreign Nationals Act, provides special protections to live-in caregivers, including prohibiting recruiters and employers from charging fees, recovering placement costs, confiscating property and documents, and penalizing workers for asserting their rights;
  • the Agricultural Employees Protection Act, sets out the rights of agricultural employees in regard to employee associations and available protections against employer interference, coercion and discrimination.

While these are the major Ontario statutes discussed in the Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Work Report, other provincial and federal legislation, such as the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as certain international conventions, all play important roles in protecting workers’ rights. Other important developments are Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy and government initiatives that include efforts to enhance employment standards enforcement and increase protections for live-in caregivers and temporary agency workers.