It’s Not Just the Gig Economy — Precarious Work Is Everywhere

Kendra Strauss

A new report confirms that insecure and precarious work is widespread across the economy. To respond meaningfully to the needs of workers, the labor movement must grapple with the harmful impacts of precarity.

Food delivery workers in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on April 7, 2023. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd. / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Interview by
David Moscrop

In their new report, “But Is It a Good Job? Understanding Employment Precarity in BC [British Columbia],” for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Kendra Strauss and Iglika Ivanova survey the rise of the “gig economy.” The report finds that the harms of precarious work are widespread, with some groups bearing a greater share of the burden.

Coauthor Kendra Strauss recently spoke to David Moscrop for Jacobin and discussed the report, the state of labor, and what might be done to secure better jobs for all.

David Moscrop

I want to start by defining precarious work. One of the bits of the study I found interesting is that it complicates the idea of “precarious work.” What precisely defines a precarious job?

Kendra Strauss

One of the things we addressed in the study is the fact that there’s no single agreed-upon definition of precarious employment. We looked at two different ways that researchers have tended to approach and measure precarity. If we go back to the 1980s and the work of the International Labor Organization trying to understand changing trends in employment, mostly in higher income countries, that’s where we get the idea of standard versus nonstandard jobs. A standard job, in a kind of normative sense, was a continuing full-time job with a single employer, often with a family-supporting wage, access to benefits, and usually some access to collective representation, although that obviously varied country by country. But it’s really the characteristics of a job being full-time, continuing, with a single employer, and with access to benefits that we tend to think of as the standard.

The problem with that definition is that even historically, in the post–World War II era, it was largely normative in the sense that it applied to a significant number of workers, but there were nonetheless groups of workers who never really had access to this standard. We can think about women; we can think about racialized workers.

More recently, researchers have been looking at additional indicators of precarious employment that address both aspects of job quality and job security. We are less and less starting with the idea of “standard jobs” and then defining precarity as the opposite of that. Rather, we’re trying to actually define what precarious employment itself looks like. The main kind of indicators that tend to be part of that definition are temporary or contract-based employment, low and/or irregular income or pay, and a lack of access to employment-related benefits.

David Moscrop

The survey also found that there’s more than one type of precarious work. It’s more than just so-called gig work. Practically speaking, what sorts of precarious work did you find? What are people actually doing out there in the world that is defined as precarious?

Kendra Strauss

I think that one of the really important findings of this study in British Columbia is that precarious employment is not just gig work. What we really saw, although we didn’t gather detailed data on sector and industry, is that forms of less secure and precarious employment are found across the economy.

Almost all sectors had people working in precarious jobs. Obviously, we know that precarious employment is concentrated in certain sectors. The service sector, broadly speaking, sees relatively high levels of precarious employment. The private sector tends to see more precarious employment than the public sector. But that’s partly because in British Columbia, as in other parts of Canada, the public sector is more highly unionized. But we also see precarious employment in the public sector as well. The idea that a government job is a stable, full-time permanent job is just not true anymore, especially for young workers.

I think one of the key findings of the report is that precarious employment is found across our economy, but it’s not equally distributed among different groups of workers. That’s where we really need to be concerned about the way that precarious employment interacts with other forms of systemic inequalities.

“Precarity Is as Old as Capitalism”

David Moscrop

Why was it necessary for you to carry out this work in the first place? Why does Statistics Canada [the country’s national statistical agency], for instance, not collect data on precarious work?

Kendra Strauss

That’s one of the things we’ve been asking ourselves for some time. And I think the answer to that is, in some senses, that the normative idea of a standard job still exercises a lot of sway. I think Statistics Canada has really just taken a long time to catch up with the realities of the changing labor market.

Let’s be clear: precarity is as old as capitalism. This is not new. In the same way that labor exploitation is inherent in capitalism, so is precarity. Precarity benefits employers. But I think that in Canada, the perception that most people work in permanent, full-time continuing jobs has been one that was really only disrupted by the pandemic, because the pandemic actually spurred Statistics Canada to add some additional questions that get at some of the indicators that we looked at in our study.

The study was inspired by the Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario research project, which ran for a number of years and was one of the first studies to really look at precarious employment in the greater Toronto area using survey-based research. We were frustrated by the gaps in the data that Statistics Canada generate and gather through, for example, the labor-force survey, but also through the census as well. There was very limited data on access to benefits, on multiple job-holding, on training, and many of these indicators of job quality and job security that are important to understanding precarious employment.

David Moscrop

You mentioned that not everyone is affected equally by precarious work. That’s one of the findings in your report. Which sorts of people are affected by this type of labor?

Kendra Strauss

Well, unsurprisingly, given settler colonialism and racial capitalism, indigenous workers — in particular indigenous men — were the single largest group to be in precarious jobs. For recent immigrants, people who’ve immigrated within the last ten years, the likelihood of being in precarious employment is very high. And interestingly, that mirrors some of the findings of a government report.

The government released its “what we heard” on its consultation with app-based food delivery and ride-hailing workers in British Columbia just a day or two before we released our report. And one of the things that it found was that certain groups of workers are highly reliant on app-based gig work as the main source of their income. It’s not just a little bit of extra cash. What we see is that recent immigrants, who are also likely to be racialized, are not able to access what we might think of as core- or primary-sector jobs. They’re more likely to be in precarious jobs.

Racialized workers broadly, and women, are also more likely to be precarious. And young workers. So, we really see kind of intersecting or interlocking forms of inequality being related to the likelihood or propensity of being in precarious employment. What should really concern us all is that precarious employment both reflects but also exacerbates those existing systemic inequalities that I talked about.

Balancing Flexibility and Security

David Moscrop

Building off that, we know that precarious work is a lousy deal for individuals that makes it harder for them to afford the things they need to get through the day, much less flourish. But are there broader social, political, and economic effects that a market full of precarious work produces?

Kendra Strauss

We know that there has been increasing polarization in the labor market. We know that there’s been increasing polarization in income and wealth in Canada. I think what we’re seeing is the way in which precarious employment is part of that picture. We don’t yet have an analysis with which to identify causal relationships. But I think we can say with some confidence that the spread of precarious employment and its unequal distribution is part of that picture.

But there are broader social implications as well. When people don’t have access to employer-provided benefits in a country like Canada, where we have at least primary health care that’s free at the point of delivery, we bear the costs of the unequal distribution of extended health care benefits as a society. Although I don’t particularly like the argument that we should be concerned just because of the cost in taxpayer’s money, I do think that there are social costs that we need to be aware of.

We also see broader social costs in relation to the ability of precarious workers and their families to participate in society and in their communities, to participate equally in the lives of their children. We see that precarious workers have less time and ability to help their children with homework and to participate in school trips or to afford school supplies and the basic things that any parent wants to be able to do with their kids and their family. Precarious employment is a barrier to equal participation of families and workers in their communities. And that’s a problem. That’s something we should all be worried about.

David Moscrop

The report is called, “But Is It a Good Job?” What is a good job and how does it contrast with a bad, precarious job? What does better look like?

Kendra Strauss

That’s a great question, because I think one of the things we need to be aware of is that discourses of flexibility have been very successfully mobilized, including by big tech companies. It’s politically naive to deny — particularly for those of us who are interested in organizing with workers while taking into account the political implications of precarity — that workers do want and need some flexibility. And not everybody wants a full-time, permanent kind of desk-based or industrial job that we used to think of as the gold standard. We can say that decent jobs are characterized by security and permanence. But we also need to think about flexibility and security and how they can be traded off against one another.

So, for example, some workers might prefer contract-based employment — particularly highly paid and highly skilled workers — because it actually gives them flexibility, and they have pretty good bargaining power. But other workers might prefer a continuing job, but not necessarily a full-time job. We need to think carefully about why workers need flexibility. If, for example, it’s because they need to provide childcare and don’t have access to childcare that’s affordable and good quality, then we need to look at both the organization of employment and the organization of collective supports — our social services and our social safety net.

We need to think about what workers need to have to ensure adequate security to be able to live day to day and thrive and plan for the future. But the ways in which we as a society provide the supports that workers in their communities need is a significant part of that puzzle.

A really good example of this is the introduction of five paid sick days in British Columbia. That policy was not in place when we did our survey. And a very high proportion of workers had no access to any paid sick days. We could say that five sick days might be inadequate — I would’ve liked to see ten — but, either way, that’s a policy that makes a significant difference to workers in terms of their ability to stay home when they’re not well. And that benefits them, but it also benefits our society in terms of public health.

That’s not a simple or straightforward answer, but what I’m saying is that we need to be looking at both job quality and the aspects of security that workers need to be able to plan and thrive day to day. At the same time, we also need to be looking at our social safety net and our social programs. Many of our employment supports and employment-related programs are still very much premised on a model of full-time continuing employment.

Employment insurance, for example, has covered fewer and fewer workers with each subsequent reform. And it is really, really inadequate to the realities of precarious employment. And that’s why we needed the Canada Emergency Response Benefit during the pandemic. Those programs also need to be looked at if we as a society want to have a social safety net that actually covers all workers.

Securing Better Jobs for Workers

David Moscrop

At a practical political level, do you have any advice for how advocates, activists, and even governments might bring about better jobs for workers? How does that happen at the level of the streets and at the level of the policy boardrooms?

Kendra Strauss

I think we’re already seeing organizing, particularly more grassroots organizing, that is a direct response to precarity: Fight for Fifteen movements, organizing movements around and among fast-food and gig-economy workers, or some of the efforts to try and organize with companies like Amazon. The big unions, I think, are playing catch-up.

I think traditional organized labor is waking up to the fact that precarious employment is a problem both for nonunionized and for many unionized workers — a broad-based labor movement that responds directly to the needs of most workers is one that needs to grapple directly with the realities of precarious employment. I think that’s something that the labor movement needs to wake up to. And grassroots labor organizing is already there, and that’s where we’ve seen some of the successes. Granted, those have been fragmented, and there are huge challenges in actually getting a first contract and sustaining certification in sectors like fast food.

Think about Starbucks, for example. I live in Victoria, British Columbia, and we had one of the first Starbucks to certify. And the challenges that they face in terms of actually getting their first collective agreement are massive. But we need to have a kind of critical theory of the state that understands that governments will only be held to account and bring in worker-supporting policies when workers demand it. This is not something that governments will do on their own out of the goodness of their hearts. In British Columbia, we have a government that is nominally kind of on the Left and has brought in some policies to make unionization easier. But increasing workers’ voice and the ability of workers to unionize is one of the only ways that we’re going to put pressure on employers to improve the quality of jobs, because employers are not going to do it on their own.

That said, I mean, we’re at an interesting moment where employers are talking a lot about labor shortages. And of course, their first argument is that this means that we should increase immigration, and in particular, temporary migration. They want to see the expansion of the temporary foreign worker program. But I think we need to be countering that with the argument that if you want to attract workers, you need to offer decent jobs. And in a labor market where workers have any kind of choice, they are going to be choosing jobs that meet their needs, that are more stable and less precarious. Employers need to be offering those kinds of jobs if they want to recruit and retain workers.

I think there are lessons in our report for employers and for government. And in our conclusion, we propose several policy suggestions. But we know from history that work only becomes less precarious when workers mobilize, organize, and demand less precarious employment. Our report and project aimed to shed light on the prevalence of precarious employment across various sectors of the economy. That was one of our primary motivations. We want people to understand that precarity impacts everyone, and that we need to be organizing across the economy and forming coalitions to improve employment for all workers.

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Kendra Strauss is director of the Labour Studies Program and associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University.

David Moscrop is a writer and political commentator. He hosts the podcast Open to Debate and is the author of Too Dumb For Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.

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