The Creeping Pervasiveness of Precarious Employment Is No Accident

Over one-third of Canadian workers hold precarious jobs, in which they face eroded worker protections and suppressed wages. These outcomes are not accidental but stem from deliberate policy decisions aimed at satisfying bosses’ drive to maximize profitability.

An Uber Eats delivery person walks in downtown Toronto, Canada, January 21, 2021. (Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In Gigs, Hustles, & Temps, Jason Foster, the director of Alberta’s Parkland Institute, sheds light on the significant increase in precarious or “informal” work among Canadian workers. The book reveals that as much as 36 percent of Canadian workers now find themselves entangled in precarious or perilous employment, marking a stark rise in the last few decades.

This shift has been occurring steadily over the decades, with precarious work gradually replacing traditional employment — not only in specific industries but also across agriculture and the public sector. The prevalence of this insecurity is, in turn, jeopardizing the sustainability and effectiveness of social assistance programs.

The Parkland Institute, known for its dedication to studying economic, social, cultural, and political issues affecting both Alberta and Canada as a whole, approaches its research through the lens of political economy. Foster’s book, which attacks its subject from the same vantage point, underscores how in the face of the increasing prevalence of informal work arrangements, policymakers and stakeholders must confront the changing nature of the labor market and its impact on workers’ lives. The creeping pervasiveness of precarious employment requires a comprehensive examination of existing labor laws, social safety nets, and worker protections. Foster highlights the urgency of addressing these issues to ensure a more equitable and sustainable future for Canadian workers.

Rising Precarity

“Over the past three decades, there has been a systematic effort to erode the gains made by workers since the post-war period,” Foster writes. While the government of Canada has no official definition of precarious work, Foster’s compilation of data sets reveals a distinct and undeniable trend.

By all counts, precarious work has increased across Canada’s economy since the 1980s. Officially, nonpermanent employment has nearly doubled from 7 percent in the 1980s to 10.4 percent in the early 2000s to 12 percent today. Foster’s research reveals that in 2021, 18.4 percent of jobs in Canada were categorized as part time, representing a slight increase from 18.1 percent in 2000. In addition, Foster’s findings indicate that in 2020, 15.4 percent of workers reported being self-employed, a notable increase from the 12 percent recorded in 1976.

Combined, these findings map closely to data for “non-standard employment” compiled by Statistics Canada. The agency defines any form of employment other than permanent, full-time work with a single employer as nonstandard — a category that includes part-time, temporary, and self-employed workers and those who work for multiple employers. As Foster notes in the book, the federal statistics agency found that up to 36 percent of Canada’s workforce is involved in nonstandard work, up from 28 percent in 1989. In 2018, the Bank of Canada similarly estimated that 30 percent of workers engaged in some kind of informal employment.

The “Skills Gap” Myth

Like bosses elsewhere, Canada’s owners blame the “skills gap” for their own failure to provide secure work. In a 2022 Statistics Canada survey, more than half complained that they “experienced difficulties finding candidates who possessed the skills needed to do the job at the required level.” The media often seizes on this, claiming that if workers only pursued jobs in industries like oil extraction, the building trades, or tech, they would secure stable, reliable, and well-paid jobs.

Robyn Urback wrote a textbook example of this tendency some years ago in the Toronto Sun. To combat Canada’s steadily increasing rate of youth unemployment, she argued, the fear of destitution should be wielded to menace high school students into abandoning their dreams. Youngsters going to university should be pummeled with stories about the impossibility of ever turning their gifts or interests into remunerated work, especially if they’re pursuing a degree in “medieval feminist studies.” This, the pundit claimed, will ensure that more students pursue careers in nursing or the trades. It will also, of course, ensure that only the elite pursue nonutilitarian education, re-erecting the feudal barriers between cultural sophisticates and the horny-handed toiling classes.

Precarity has long been associated with work in agriculture, educational services, information, culture, recreation, and the broader service sector. However, its influence has extended and continues to affect other industries as well.

Earlier this year, a leaked report from the federal government predicted that workers, especially those in the building trades, transportation, manufacturing, and energy sectors, should prepare for another round of “significant labor market disruptions.” These are the sectors that have a reputation for being “safe.” But even the protections in these sectors are being hollowed out.
The right wing frequently blames these burgeoning insecurities on green policies, ignoring the larger trend — no matter what change happens, workers lose.

The white-collar precinct of the knowledge economy is also feeling the lurch toward precarity. As a 2023 McMaster University study found, more than 40 percent of people employed in the knowledge or creative sectors are in precarious or vulnerable work. A near majority of these jobs require university degrees.

Foster’s book notes Statistics Canada’s finding that 36 percent of the workforce is scrambling to make ends meet with nonstandard and informal work. This finding is especially significant in light of the fact that Canada’s labor force participation rate stands at under 66 percent.

Taken together, that means that Canada’s employers have only made use of 66 percent of the potential workforce, even as an ever-increasing share is desperately looking for side hustles. Those engaged in these precarious positions typically earn significantly less than those working full-time. The result of this situation is a destructive feedback loop of overwork and idleness — with each reinforcing the other and negatively affecting overall working conditions.

Not an Accident

While the rise of precarious work in Canada is due in large part to an industrial shift, from manufacturing- to service-led production in many of Canada’s major cities, that alone is too easy an explanation. It’s essential to note that this trend affects both manufacturing workers and those in the service sector. Moreover, it is not a passive development or an accident: it has been actively fostered and facilitated by specific policy decisions. As Foster notes, “Over the past three decades, there has been a systematic effort to erode the gains made by workers since the post-war period.”

Indeed, rising precarity is a point of pride for Canadian politicians, who are eager to highlight its supposed economic benefits. In 2019, PressProgress reported that the federal government’s investment agency, Invest in Canada, boasted that Canada’s agri-food sector has some of the lowest labor costs in the industrialized world.

A report from the Information and Communications Technology Council observed that

lower Canadian wages have indeed acted as an incentive in the past. This is so much so that even recent strategies like Vancouver’s bid for the second North American headquarters of Amazon hinged on significantly lower wages in Vancouver vs. many US [and Canadian] cities.

The report noted further that many of Canada’s prospective foreign direct investors are “efficiency seeking.” This is to say that they aim “to reduce production costs by gaining access to new technologies or competitively priced inputs and labor.” In 2016, a notably candid example of political acquiescence to this trend was on display when former Liberal finance minister Bill Morneau openly stated that Canadian workers “have to accept” the “job churn” of contract work and insecurity.

As political scientist Leah Vosko has observed, this shift toward insecurity began in the early ’70s, when employers complained that “rigid labor markets” were dragging on their potential profits: “Cracks and fissures in Fordism, and hence in the SER [Standard Employment Relationship] as a normative model of employment, first became apparent in the late 1960s when labor market rigidities were becoming obstacles to global economic growth.”

Economic transfers could provide some relief for the hardships caused by increasing insecurity — but Foster shows that governments at all levels have taken the opposite approach, making precarious workers even more desperate. He notes that eligibility requirements for assistance programs were tightened amid shrinking government revenues in the 1980s. For example, in the early 1970s, Canadian workers had to work a minimum of twenty hours for a minimum of eight weeks per year to qualify for employment insurance (EI). Over time, the eligibility criteria were tightened — the program was attacked for being “too generous” — and, today, workers must work between 420 and 700 hours to attain eligibility. By 2019, as a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives details, total EI coverage was reduced from 80 percent of all workers to just 42 percent.

EI, along with all of Canada’s social assistance programs, is modeled on the English Poor Laws and has consistently aimed to not be a “disincentive” to work. But this approach has cut supports so drastically that the benefits are hardly worthy of the name. From a high of paying out 75 percent of average earnings to claimants with dependents, the program now covers only 55 percent.

Those locked out of stable work are often blamed for their own insecurity. But given that over one-third of the workforce now faces precarity, it is clearly neither a choice nor an individual problem. It is a consequence of prioritizing profitability over protections and security, leading to suppressed wages and fear among workers. Widespread job insecurity across sectors and provinces is working exactly as intended, restoring profits at the expense of workers’ lives and livelihoods.