A.                 Introduction 

This project looks at the meaning of “precarious work” and the identity of those who perform precarious work, workers we are calling “vulnerable workers”. It explores the various dimensions and ramifications of “precarious” (or “contingent” or “atypical”) work, both with respect to working conditions and the degree of protection offered by legislation and processes for enforcement, and its effect on the daily and long-term lives of workers who are engaged in precarious work.


B.                  Precarious Work 

1.                  What is Precarious Work? 

“Precarious work” finds much of its meaning when it is compared to the “standard employment relationship”. The standard employment relationship is based on full-time, continuous and life-long or permanent work with decent pay and benefits. The assumption of the standard employment relationship was supplemented by “the social safety net”, intended to cover breaks in employment and to some extent the end of a person’s working life. Although the standard employment relationship did not cover all working relationships by any means, over time, it has become even less common. Increasingly, workers move more often from one job to another. More and more workers are employed in short-term work with few, if any, benefits, or work in a relationship that is treated as if they are (in)dependent contractors, even though the conditions of work in other ways resemble employment. There is little job security or influence over working conditions.[1] The Supreme Court of Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Labour have both recognized the concept of “vulnerable worker” as associated with particular types of work.[2] 

Precarious work can be identified through the structure of the work or the kind of work. Part-time employment, own account or self-employed work and temporary work of various kinds are common forms of precarious work.  

Part-time work usually takes the form of, for example, 20 or 24 hours a week, or it may overlap with temporary work such as when the same worker is regularly hired every Christmas. Workers may obtain temporary employment through temporary employment agencies, through direct contact with employers, on term limited contracts lasting from a few weeks to a year or so, or through federal migration schemes. While this work may be “temporary” for the worker, the work itself may be required by the employer on a permanent or regular basis. Protective legislation does not distinguish between full and part-time employees, but employers are not required to pay part-time workers the same rate or give them the same benefits as full-time workers. Women are disproportionately engaged in part-time work.[3] 

Own-account self employment accounted for 16% of employment in Canada in 2000. Most workers in this category do not have control over how work is done or benefit from an increase in the profits of the company; they are not like small business owners (“entrepreneurs”), but more like employees. Nevertheless, they may not be covered by protective legislation that applies to “employees” because they are not considered employees. This type of precarious work has increased over the last two decades, particularly among women.[4] 

Temporary employment constitutes 12.5% of all employment in Canada; many temporary employees receive about half the pay that full-time employees in the same kind of job receive; fewer than 10% receive extended health care and only 2% dental benefits.[5]  

Workers assigned by temporary employment agencies (or “temp agencies”) are temporary employees. (Temp agencies provide or assign employees to their “employer” clients for specific periods of time.) Since the 1990s, the number of temp agencies has increased from 1,300 to 4,200 in 2004, with revenues of $6 billion, 60% of which was generated in Ontario.[6] Many temp agency employees received new rights and benefits in November 2009 through Bill 139, the Employment Standards Amendment Act (Temporary Help Agencies), 2009, which amended the Employment Standards Act, 2000, although the new provisions do not apply to all temp agency employees, such as those who perform personal services under certain conditions. Bill 139 makes clear that the temp agency is the employer of the individual, rather than the entity to which the individual may be assigned. Temp agency employees now receive public holiday pay and termination and severance pay. 

Workers on federal migration schemes are given visas to work in Canada for specified periods of time and therefore both their employment and their immigration status are temporary. There has been an increase in temporary foreign workers of 125% since the 1990s. Workers who come to Canada under federal temporary migration schemes are often destined for precarious work. Other immigration programs target highly skilled or economically well-off workers or entrepreneurs for whom the terms of relevant programs are not so limiting, however. 

The federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) which began in 1966 permits workers (now mainly from Mexico) to work in Canada for up to eight months a year. These workers are not able to extend their stay or apply for permanent residence while in Canada.[7] 

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) began in 2003 to recruit workers for a variety of sectors, including agricultural, construction, hospitality and meat packing. These workers work for two years, but as with workers under SAWP, are not allowed to remain after that period. New regulations coming into effect in April 2011 provide that these workers may not remain in Canada for more than four years and must wait an additional four years before applying under the program again.[8]  

An important exception to the temporary immigrant status under the federal programs is the federal Live-in Caregiver Program (begun in an earlier form in 1910). It permits caregivers to serve as domestic workers in Canada for two years initially; it also allows them to extend their stay and to apply for permanent resident status.[9] 

The various forms of precarious work provide flexibility to the employer who may not require full-time workers all year or to perform certain tasks or they may have difficulty finding Canadian workers to perform certain kinds of work. They may also seek to avoid paying benefits they would pay to full-time workers, however. 

Workers also may wish to maintain flexibility in their work situation, although often they do not and would prefer full time work. For some workers, flexibility may provide opportunities to gain Canadian work experience, allow individuals time to engage in other pursuits or provide “added cash” at particular times. Migrant workers earn more than in their home countries and are able to “send money home”. For other workers, however, precarious work may mean that they must work at more than one job in order to earn enough to live and support a family (not an option available to migrant workers).  

There have always been workers who can be described as “vulnerable”, whose wages were low, who enjoyed few if any benefits and whose continued employment was constantly in doubt. In contrast, other workers have enjoyed a “standard employment relationship” with one employer for life or, at least, long periods of time.  Increasingly, work that was structured as permanent providing a “standard employment relationship”, has become more insecure. For some employees, the increased insecurity may be compensated for by opportunities for training or other benefits.[10] This is not the case for the workers who are the subject of this project. 

Many protective statutes do not explicitly distinguish between part-time or temporary employees and full-time employees, yet their benefits may not be available to part-time or temporary employees for a variety of reasons. For example, these workers may not be able to meet the length of service requirements that sometimes apply to receipt of benefits.


2.                  Measures of Precarious Work  

We are using four (often highly related) measures to determine whether work is “precarious”:

·                     Earnings: the relationship of earnings to the minimum wage or a specified level, such as a poverty line;

·                     Benefits or “social wage”:  such as pensions, dental benefits, extended medical coverage that can have implications for the circumstances of the whole family;

·                     Regulatory protection: whether covered by employment statutes or whether able to unionize and how well protections that do exist can be enforced; and

·                     Control: whether unionized or whether there are other indications the workers have the ability to affect their working conditions.[11]

In broad terms, using these factors, precarious work is work that is paid, but with low or unstable wages, with few i