A. Precarious Work
1. The Meaning and Increasing Prevalence of “Precarious Work”
The LCO’s Project examines the impact of insecurity in the labour market on Ontarians. A variety of terms are employed to characterize labour market insecurity: the work is described as contingent, vulnerable, non-standard, atypical and precarious. Although often used in similar ways, these terms do not necessarily mean the same thing. The LCO uses the term “precarious work” to capture certain features of insecurity. Those features of insecurity are often said to include low wages, a lack of benefits, an atypical employment contract and a greater risk of illness and injury.
The notion of “precariousness” is employed in contrast to the “standard employment relationship” which underpins the major forms of legislated employment protections. The understanding of “standard employment” developed in relation to post-World War II social and economic restructuring. Fordism, of which the automotive sector served as the paradigmatic example, although the concept applies to many manufacturing and other concepts, refers to large-scale production firms employing a large workforce who possess a standard set of skills which are utilized in an assembly-line process. Typically, these employees were located within a single worksite with little or no spatial dispersion. Within Fordist production there existed little, if any, serious legal dispute over who the actual employer was. This was true even for subsidiary or branch plant firms located in Canada but headquartered elsewhere, usually the United States. Spatial dispersion may have occurred in terms of corporate executive structure, and perhaps with respect to lower levels of management. However, a single, known employer was the norm.
Over time and through struggle and engagement, the ideal of the standard employment relationship was transformed into concrete realities of full-time, continuous and life-long or permanent work with decent pay. The bundle of benefits that eventually accompanied employment in this model included important social benefits and entitlements in addition to a level of earnings that contributed to the livelihood of workers, their households and the wider community.
A key assumption was that the social safety net would provide protections for workers, and by extension for members of their household, during exceptional periods of layoff or short-term job loss. In addition, the social safety net was meant to support Canadians “from the cradle to the grave”, even if not at the level of their employment income. The idea was not guaranteed security of livelihoods, nor was it a basic guaranteed income. Rather, the safety net was perceived to bridge the gap between periods of steady and unsteady employment for the Canadian labouring population and at the end of one’s employment life.
That said, the standard employment relationship and the accompanying safety net never applied to all workers or all forms of paid work. Agricultural workers, for instance, were excluded from the full protective coverage of standard employment for reasons related to the preservation of the family farming model and the pressures of peak harvest. Nor, fundamentally, did the standard employment model capture unpaid labour within households. This meant that, by implication, paid domestic work also was situated outside the scope of standard employment. Today, one estimate is that thirty-eight percent of paid work is performed outside the standard employment norm.
The initial assumptions of the standard employment norm were formulated around a certain type of occupation, blue-collar manufacturing, and over time were broadened to incorporate resource extraction such as mining and other blue-collar work, including construction. Later, the norm was extended to white-collar public sector work and spread from waged employment to corporate salaried work as well. It rested on several fundamental, if implicit, assumptions about labouring persons connected to gender (male), racialization (dominant group or white), sexuality (heteronormativity), marital status (opposite-sex marriage), ability (able-bodied) and citizenship status (Canadian). Thus, what typically is referred to as the male breadwinner norm in actuality incorporated much broader assumptions.
In sum, the standard employment relationship which emerged around World War II in Canada assumed a white, heterosexual, able-bodied male worker who, as the primary breadwinner in a household, received decent wages and benefits sufficient to support the family. Accordingly, the norm also assumed a female caregiver who performed the daily upkeep of the household, and who was dependent upon the male breadwinner for income and benefits. This model did not contemplate a situation in which both belonged to the dominant (or market or public-oriented male “class”) or both belonged to the subordinate (domestic or private-oriented) female class. The worker was typically employed by one employer in continuous full-time employment on the employer’s premises or under its explicit supervision.
The assumptions of the standard employment norm clearly cannot, and to a large extent historically, could not be maintained. Still, gaining a solid understanding of the assumptions that grounded the standard employment norm assists in understanding the meaning of precarious work because it reveals whom the legal regimes of employment were designed to cover or protect and thus who are likely to be “left out” of these protections. This is particularly significant since today’s “employment relationship” is increasingly unlike the standard employment relationship and since “employment” does not describe the legally acknowledged relationship of some so-called (in)dependent contractors with their “contractors”. The workforce increasingly includes those who have been omitted from the protections.
Precariousness has been increasing in Canada and elsewhere since the 1970s. The rise in precarious employment calls into question long-standing assumptions about paid work. The detrimental effects of increasing precariousness, however, are felt not only in employment, but also in wider social relationships and in areas of people’s lives other than their work.
Although the term itself is new, aspects of precarious employment have been persistent features of employment in most western economies. In its contemporary usage, the concept of precariousness captures general and specific trends in the labour market. Generally, there has been an erosion of secure forms of paid work typically associated with the standard employment relationship, discussed below. Increasingly, people are employed in part-time, temporary and own-account self-employment. This phenomenon has been observed throughout industrialized countries and throughout various labour sectors.
In Canada, these general trends have perhaps been exhibited most prominently in the automotive manufacturing sector of southwestern Ontario where the erosion of standard employment intensified in the 1990s and the 2000s. This erosion is not limited to manufacturing in core sectors, however. Other productive sectors, including service, also have experienced a comparable phenomenon. Service sector employment examples include nursing, high technology and office administrative work.
A crucial point is that the dramatic reorganization of the labour market has meant that even paid work most closely associated with the standard employment relationship now is becoming more insecure. This shift has created “the boundaryless workplace” with a different understanding of the employment relationship, one far less often based on an expectation of employment for one’s working life with the same employer. By implication, this calls into question the utility of the standard employment norm both as an ideal type on which to model legal regulatory reforms, and as a basis of comparison. For relatively well paid workers with high demand skills, the relationship has changed on both sides. Thus although work may be less secure, there are factors intended to offset the concern, such as increased training opportunities provided by the employer. In short, work arrangements and expectations have changed for many workers. For some workers, however, there are not reciprocal benefits to offset the non-standard characteristics of their work. These are workers who engage in work that has always been characterized by conditions of precariousness.
More specific trends have emerged within the labour market especially affecting employment considered low-skilled. A growing sense of insecurity characterizes diverse forms of employment in sectors such as agriculture, door-to-door sales, hospitality and hotel, and healthcare, particularly the support service work of cleaners, food service and clerical workers. Insecurity in these forms of paid work is not new. Paid work of a seasonal nature, for instance, represents an enduring example of chronically insecure employment.
The desire for labour flexibility serves as the leading rationale for contemporary shifts toward greater insecurity in employment. Labour flexibility is regarded as an important way in which employers maintain competitiveness in increasingly globalized consumer markets. Indeed, critics point out that, although workers have demanded greater flexibility, especially to accommodate household demands, labour flexibility overwhelmingly serves the interests of employers.