Precarious employment has been the subject of much important policy analysis and research in recent years. In 1990, the Economic Council of Canada identified “the growth of ‘nonstandard’ work” as a social force “acting to increase the ‘segmentation’ of the labour market, with employment experiences becoming increasingly polarized into two categories — ‘good’ jobs and ‘bad’ jobs”. The Canadian Policy Research Network and the Law Commission of Canada generated a series of publications on vulnerable workers. The province of Quebec also initiated a review on these matters. More recently, there has been a proliferation of academic work on precarious employment. Much of this work is explicitly policy oriented, multidisciplinary and highly sophisticated in its treatment of these issues.
Since the late 1980s, the Supreme Court of Canada has shown marked interest in the subject, using the language of “vulnerable workers”. In Dunmore, addressing the freedom of association of rights of agricultural workers in Ontario, the Court identified the “inherent vulnerability” of workers generally vis-à-vis management and the “specific vulnerability” of agricultural workers. The Ontario Ministry of Labour also employs the term “vulnerable workers” in providing information about their rights.
The Canadian experience of vulnerable workers is not an isolated one. Other countries have also grappled with the situation of workers who for one reason or another do not benefit from the protections many other workers enjoy, even if they are legally entitled to them, and this is not always the case. Although many vulnerable workers are Canadian born, the issue cannot be separated from the phenomenon of global migration. A considerable proportion of vulnerable workers are workers who have entered Canada (and other countries) as temporary workers, although not all “migrants” are vulnerable workers. Similarly, many vulnerable workers are immigrants who are eligible for citizenship, although not all immigrants are vulnerable workers. Other vulnerable workers live in Canada, including Ontario, without legal immigration status for a variety of reasons. A United Nations review of the growth in foreign-born migrants shows that Canada ranks among “higher growth nations”, nations in which there has been an increase of more than two per cent of foreign-born migrants from 1990 to 2010.
The phenomenon of vulnerable workers has increased in significance over the last quarter century with the decline of manufacturing, rapid technological advances, changes in immigration policy and global migration of people and corporations. This Background Paper explores these changes which have attracted some positive responses, but require others. The future holds even more change, however, in the nature of work, the retirement of “baby boomers” (although this situation is not uncomplicated), the “plateauing” of the entry of youth into the labour force and a decline in skilled workers, all of which affect the availability of labour. Furthermore, “the overall participation rate is projected to drop sharply by 2031. Canada is seen as moving from a position of surplus to a deficit in labour supply”. Not everyone agrees there will be widespread labour shortages (at least, not one resulting from an ageing population), although there may be localized shortages geographically and in certain segments of the market. In any event, although Ontario is one of three provinces expected to be an exception with a larger labour force in 2031 than in 2005, it will nevertheless face challenges in labour force composition. The “shortage challenge”, however, can also be an opportunity to address other problems in the labour market, including those facing vulnerable workers.
The situation facing vulnerable workers is reflected not only their work life, but also in other aspects of their lives, including their health, their participation in the community, their families and in many cases their integration into Canadian, including Ontario, society. The treatment of vulnerable workers, including workers whose skills and education levels are high but who are unable to obtain employment commensurate with their skills and education, has ramifications for Canadian, and Ontario, society generally.
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