Precarious positions: policy options to mitigate risks in non-standard employment.

Author:Busby, Colin

Canada's best option to support individuals in insecure work is to strengthen the social safety net.


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With the potential of precarious work to limit consumer willingness to spend, delay family formation and create too much uncertainty in the labour force, governments are paying close attention to these issues in Canada and abroad. Further, they are looking at a number of tools to address these issues, including changes to labour legislation and improvements in safety nets. But how widespread are employment risks and insecurities, and is it getting worse over time?

In this Commentary, we look at the common meanings of precarious work in academic and policy research finding that various meanings help bring attention to employment arrangements with elevated insecurity. We examine trends in non-standard work in Canada and find that the overall prevalence of non-standard work has stabilized over the last couple of decades after growing sharply in the early 1990s. Non-standard work tends to be more insecure than "traditional" jobs, so its persistence over time and, in particular, increases in the prevalence of temporary employment--with large concentrations in health, education, and food services sectors, among others--prompts a deeper investigation.

Many forces contribute to the creation of non-standard work. They include factors such as business desires for flexibility--often associated with globalization and technological change--but also worker preferences, which play a major role. In our view, the complexity behind causes of non-standard job creation, and the lessons from some international attempts to address specific areas of concerns through blunt legislative tools, militates in favour of looking to options that bolster the safety net. We think that although reviews of labour laws and their enforcement may lead to constructive discussions and new ideas to improve enforcement, interventions to shape employment arrangements with legislation pose the greatest risks of stymying job creation.

In this Commentary, we present a list of options to reduce the income-related vulnerabilities and uncertainties faced by many non-standard workers. These include reducing gaps in health coverage, improving Employment Insurance (EI) eligibility, boosting access to social programs, and ensuring uptake of programs that improve access to education and skills training programs for workers. All of these options should help policymakers design the social safety net in ways that mitigates common risks in non-standard work, while supporting labour market dynamism.

Following the great recession, commentators drew attention to workers with little job security, no benefits and without access to full-time permanent work (Yalnizyan 2012, Van Alphen 2013)

This discussion was amplified as millennials voiced their frustrations with poor job prospects amid slow economic growth. Further, declining rates of union density in the private sector, as well as factors such as globalization and technology, were presented as potential reasons for a rising class of "precarious" workers (CLC 2016). In response to these concerns, Ontario and other provinces are examining labour laws and their enforcement. The motivation for doing so is reasonably straightforward: if a large segment of workers faces uncertainties, due to a lack of employment security and low compensation, this could reduce willingness to spend, slow family creation, delay home purchases, and so on.

The term "precarious employment" stands in contrast to the notion of a "standard" employment relationship, which grew out of the massive economic growth in the 1950s and '60s. Common understandings of a standard job meant full-time employment, good pay, access to benefits and a high degree of stability (Vosko 2006). Despite the widely held notion of "standard" work having emerged during a unique period of fast-growing wealth and significant competition between firms for available workers--where single-earner households were the norm--it continues to shape discussions on employment and labour market research. Further, many government policies have arguably been designed with the conventional construct of "standard" employment in mind.

Employment relationships, however, continue to evolve along with economic circumstances, the desires of workers, the needs of firms and changing government policy. In this Commentary, we look at common definitions of "precarious" work and go on to analyse trends in "non-standard" employment. We find that although the prevalence of all forms of non-standard work combined has not changed much in the last two decades, there have been notable increases in temporary-term and contract work during this time. Certainly, many workers face uncertainty and Canadian governments have a wide set of tools to address these concerns, but the desire for flexible employment arrangements --by firms and in many case by workers as well --argues in favour of addressing workplace risk through improvements to the social safety net more so than through changes to labour laws. We therefore suggest a number of policies, from feasible improvements in the availability of healthcare coverage, to potential reforms to employment insurance to catch workers falling between the cracks. Our proposed policy options should mitigate income-related vulnerabilities and facilitate rewarding careers while posing a minimal risk to job creation.

Precarious Work: What is It?

Precarious employment has a number of meanings in academic and policy-oriented research. (1) Precarious work is commonly associated with employment characteristics. For instance, precarious employment often refers to employment that is insecure, unstable, and uncertain, reflecting individuals' vulnerabilities in these positions. This broad definition of "precarity" recognizes that uncertainties can be present in all forms of employment, from full-time permanent positions through to temporary, short-term contract work.

For example, a broader definition of precarity is used in research that aims to identify risks and insecurities in workplace arrangements in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) (PEPSO 2013, 2015). The researchers asked workers a series of survey questions on job stability and then labeled employment as either "stable," "secure," "vulnerable," or "precarious." After assigning the responses to an index, the study found that more than half of employees in the GTHA have jobs with relatively high levels of insecurity and risk (PEPSO 2015).

Other research studies have focused on employment characteristics as well as individual circumstances in describing precarious work. The Law Commission of Ontario (LCO 2010), for instance, describes precarious work using four dimensions--earnings, benefits, regulatory protection and control--with a further emphasis on a worker's "social location," which includes individual characteristics that are often subject to discrimination, such as race, gender, and age.

The European parliament (2016), for example, looks at the intersection of insecure employment, unsupportive entitlements (benefits), and vulnerable employees to identify precarious workers. Similarly, Noack and Vosco (2011) create a more measureable conceptual framework to identify an intersection of work characteristics, such as not being in a union, not having a workplace pension, working for a small firm and earning a low wage. They find that, during the last decade, around one-third of Ontario and Quebec workers correspond to three or more of these criteria and could be classified as being in precarious work.

Ontario's Changing Workplaces Review's interim report undertakes a comprehensive review of definitions for precarious and vulnerable employment, highlighting work dimensions as the major criteria for policymakers' focus (CWR 2016). The report identifies the use of the term "vulnerable workers" as being more often used with respect to individuals, not their work or jobs. Regarding the latter, the report highlights job characteristics such as: a lack of benefits, involuntary part-time work, work for temporary help agencies, term or contract work, and others, in helping to define precarious work. Further, the review argues that those in low-paid employment merit greater attention.

Our Approach

In this Commentary, we focus on one type of job classification that intersects with the common definitions of precarious employment--what Statistics Canada refers to as "non-standard work." This means "employment situations that differ from the traditional model of a stable, full-time job" (Vosko et al. 2003, 16). Non-standard jobs tend to be...

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