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Precarious Employment–-Can You Stand The Strain?

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I. Introduction: The Forum on Precarious Employment

On March 20, 2007, Toronto's St. Lawrence Forum on Precarious Employment created the opportunity for an impassioned exchange on the topic of insecure employment. Carol Goar, columnist with The Toronto Star, moderated the evening's discussion for the 260 audience participants and the following panellists:

  • Deena Ladd, coordinator of the Workers Action Centre
  • Wayne Lewchuk, economics professor at McMaster University and lead researcher in a study on the health effects of precarious employment relationships
  • Zainab Tayeb, former contract worker, whose experience lead to become a workers' rights advocate
  • Deb Matthews, MPP for London North Centre and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister for Community and Social Services

The Forum on Precarious Employment was the first in a series from the St. Lawrence Forum in conjunction with The Toronto Star in its War on Poverty ( series. It was sponsored by the Income Security Advocacy Centre (, with assistance from the Workers Action Centre ( and the "Employment Strain" research project at McMaster University.

Carol Goar opened the Forum by saying that precarious employment is the "hidden basement of our economy." Writing about these issues has taught her to see "the difference between having a job and making a living" (see Star coverage of the event at

The panellists presented four crucial issues:

  • The current minimum wage does not keep workers out of poverty in Toronto, or in most communities in Ontario, and consequently many are stressed and working at more than one job.
  • Workers in precarious jobs are not protected by employment standards.
  • Workplace monitoring and employment standards enforcement are not adequate.
  • Precarious employment has negative health impacts for workers.

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 II. Precarious Employment and Poverty

Precarious employment has grown since the early 1990s, as global competition and budget pressures have contributed to workplace restructuring. These conditions create a significant loss of core, full-time jobs and far more part-time, casual, and temporary jobs. Toronto's economy, in particular, relies on low-paid immigrant workers. So, although the economy is doing well--"unemployment" is down, GDP is growing, interest rates are low, and steady growth is forecast--it isn't working for everyone.

Almost 40% of jobs in the Canadian labour market are precarious, that is, they are term or temporary contracts, or part-time. Most of these types of jobs are low paid, with poor benefits and little chance of advancement. They are also, in many cases, unprotected by collective agreements, not covered by employment insurance, excluded from employment standards, and unsafe.

In Ontario, almost 25% of workers earn $10 an hour or less. That proportion is even higher for women and immigrant workers: 31% of women and 41% of recent immigrants earn $10 an hour or less. The median wage in Ontario has been $10 an hour for the last 20 years, whereas the cost of living has gone up by 52% in the same period. The current minimum wage of $8 an hour keeps a full-time worker $6,000 below the poverty line (Workers Action Centre, 2007). Workers cannot survive on one job, so many are working more hours and are juggling more than one job, living with a level of stress that is harmful to their families and communities. The province's social assistance policies are intended to get people into work, but as Forum participants pointed out, they do not get people out of poverty.

Deena Ladd spoke about the vulnerability of precarious workers. Most of us think that basic working conditions are protected in Ontario, but an astonishing number of workers find that even the most fundamental right --to get paid for the work that you do--is not available to them. In the last 3 years alone, workers have taken complaints about unpaid wages to the provincial government, yet $59 million in wages remained uncollected (Workers Action Centre, 2007). Employers do not feel compelled by the current system to comply with the law, in part because there are no penalties for breaking it, other than to pay the worker what they are owed (with no interest or compensation). Vulnerable workers do not make complaints easily, so this is perhaps the tip of the iceberg of unpaid wages. Violations of other employment standards protections also remain vastly under-reported.

Zainab Tayeb is a business manager from Pakistan who has been in Canada for five years. One of her jobs since arriving was selling door-to-door subscriptions for Rogers cable. She was trained by Rogers and identified herself at the door as a Rogers representative, but was hired by a sub-contractor. The sub-contractor refused to pay the commission it promised, and Rogers refused to take any responsibility. Zainab and other Rogers workers took their case to the Ministry of Labour. After two years of living without the money, spending hours learning about how to fight the issue, and even demonstrating in front of Rogers headquarters, they were finally paid what was owed them. The experience has turned her into an advocate for the rights of workers.

Deena Ladd spoke of workers who found their work through employment agencies. A disturbing number have recently reported that they are required to pay a fee to get work. One cleaner, for instance, was required to pay $3,000 to an agency that then placed him in work that paid nothing for the first couple of months, and then, less than $500 a month. Other workers report having to pay a "registration" fee to temporary employment agencies. Temporary employment agencies were deregulated in 2001, leaving these workers with no legal recourse.

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III. Precarious Employment and Health

Wayne Lewchuk spoke about his team's new study that shows that weakened commitments from employers create toxic employment relationships that are generally unsustainable for individual workers, and that have social and health consequences beyond the workplace (see Star coverage at The study, funded by the Workers' Safety and Insurance Board, surveyed over 3,240 workers, most from the Greater Toronto Area, and interviewed 75 workers from a wide range of occupations. The questions focused on the transfer of costs and risks between employers and employees, and on stress-related health consequences.

The study heard from many workers that the stress of their employment situation carried into all aspects of their lives, that they experienced stress-related health disorders, and that they worried that their health was deteriorating because weren't able to afford most care. They put off doing things they knew would be good for their health because they couldn't afford the time or money. They work when they are sick, don't take vacations, don't take expensive medication or supplements, don't go to the dentist, don't change their glasses, don't eat healthy foods, and don't exercise regularly. "It permeates life," Lewchuk says of the stress of precarious employment. "It's toxic." Workers described being in "survival mode," and that this mode was "unsustainable."

The study found that, regardless of their job type, the most vulnerable workers shared the following characteristics:

  • They must invest considerable energy in finding and keeping employment.
  • They do not know with much certainty when they will work or how much money they are likely to make.
  • They do not have strong support at work and at home.

The research team calls this combination of uncertainties "Employment Strain" and one third of survey participants reported having it. Those most affected were workers from racial minorities, particularly those from South Asia. South Asian women in the study were the most likely of any group to have employment strain (45% had employment strain, compared with the average of 34% for all respondents). Temporary agency workers also had particularly high stress and related health problems. They were more than twice as likely as permanent workers to be regularly working in pain; and almost twice as likely to report poor mental health, regular headaches, sleep disorders and regular frustration with work.

Precarious employment relationships also make it more difficult for most workers to socialize and to maintain healthy relationships off the job, either because of constantly changing schedules or insufficient income. The study found that support at work and at home significantly lightens workers' stress levels and lowers the risk of poor health. This kind of support, however, was mostly available to full-time workers, and was least available to temporary workers. This challenges the myth that temporary or part-time workers don't really need a full-time job (or full-time salary) because they are supplementing the income of someone else in their household. The workers who experienced employment strain had the least financial and other support from their household, family, or friends. They also had the least access to public programs: most were not eligible for employment insurance, and those with young children struggled to find affordable child care that met their changing work situations. It is worth noting that even those who did rely on a partner's income said even this was eroding because partners were losing full benefits, and restructuring was creating uncertainty about their jobs.

"We have adopted the business mantra that employers need flexibility to compete in the global economy, without assessing the costs to health and our quality of life," Lewchuk said at the Forum.

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IV. Actions

Advocates for precarious workers and anti-poverty workers recommend the following policy and legislative changes:

  • Increase the minimum wage immediately. The day after the Forum, the province announced that the Ontario minimum wage would increase to $10.25 by 2010. Advocates argue that the increase needs to happen this year, and that the delay will keep workers in poverty.
  • Increase the numbers of employment standards inspectors in the province. While the government has increased the number of inspections since 2004, workplaces still have only a 1% chance of being inspected.
  • Introduce fines and other penalties for employment standards violations.
  • Overhaul employment standards to better protect precarious work situations, at a minimum to include paid sick days and longer notice of schedules and lay-offs.
  • Provide the Human Rights Commission with adequate resources to effectively take on the many new opportunities for discrimination in this labour market.
  • Re-regulate the employment services industry.