Michelle, a 36-year-old single mother, came to see me after her most recent job ended – a maternity contract – seeking help finding what calls a “proper job.” Despite impressive administrative skills and extensive experience, Michelle has been unsuccessful in securing a full-time, permanent role for over seven years. In 2009, after her high conflict marriage ended, Michelle – now a single mother of a special needs child – had to leave her demanding job to seek work that would enable her to take the time needed to attend to her daughter’s needs. Since that time, she has struggled to find meaningful work, instead finding short-term, low pay contracts, mostly via agencies. In seven years, Michelle has not received any paid vacation or sick leave, has not been able to contribute to a pension and, most importantly, has had no health benefits. Her and her daughter’s dental care has been compromised, and she struggles to afford the cost of her daughter’s medications. She has begun sinking into deeper credit card debt, having had to use her credit card to pay for health and other needed costs, in hopes of paying her debt once she gets the “next” job. Michelle shared with me that while her new flexibility was initially helpful in being able to attend to her daughter’s needs, the ongoing stress that came from a lack of resources and from the constant pressure to find the next job, was corrosive, taking a toll her mental health.
Michelle is one of millions of Torontonians, about half of the workforce, who are described as “precarious workers,” according to a study from McMaster University. The study described the impact of precarious work as “not sustainable for most workers, and carries serious health and social consequences. Limited and eroding levels of support compound the health-risks of nonpermanent employment.” The United Way went on to produce a report from this study, documenting the impacts that workers such as Michelle experience in detail.
What is Precarious Work?
The United Way report describes ‘precarity’ as “states of employment that do not have the security or benefits enjoyed in more traditional employment relationships. These precarious employment relationships are becoming the ‘new normal’ for many in our workforce.”
In a recent editorial by the Toronto Star, precarious workers (also called Urban Workers) were described as “the silent — indeed, practically invisible — majority”… ”composed of independent contractors, part-time employees, self-employed entrepreneurs, and creative types”, working in what they call “the gig economy“, lurching from contract to contract, gig to gig.
The editorial called on federal and provincial governments, as well as unions, to act to support these workers better. It also referred readers to the newly formed Urban Worker Project, a new initiative which aims to bring these workers together, to advocate for solutions for the challenges facing precarious workers.
The Challenges Facing Precarious Workers
Workers who are self-employed, contract, part-time or freelance often struggle with a lack of the benefits and protections usually afforded permanently employed staff.
This may include:
- Lower pay, with no protections for overtime, or ability to negotiate raises or equity pay
- Lack of benefits, such as sick leave, paid vacation, pensions or extended health coverage
- Ineligibility for government programs such as Employment Insurance, including Maternity or Disability Leave
- No union protections
Identifying Possible Solutions
Andrew Cash, co-founder of the Urban Worker Project, and Member of Parliament for Davenport in Toronto outlines a set of proposals, titled The National Urban Worker Strategy, which include:
- “Extending unemployment benefits (…), while improving access to Employment Insurance. This would include exploring options to improve income security for the self-employed.”
- “Fixing current taxation practices (…). This includes studying options such as income averaging for vulnerable workers with highly volatile incomes and reviewing the challenges of complicated tax filing requirements for contract workers and the self-employed.
- “Making sure everyone has access to a livable pension. This includes working with provinces to increase overall CPP benefits and developing retirement savings solutions that better meet the needs of Urban Workers, and finally reversing the increase to the age of eligibility for OAS”.
- “Working with the Provinces and Territories to address other factors arising from the changing type of work in urban areas, including:
- Cracking down on the misclassification of employees as ‘independent contractors,’
- Preventing the misuse of unpaid internships,
- Ensuring temp agencies adhere to existing labour laws,
- Addressing the lack of additional benefits (health, dental, drug) for many Urban Workers,
- Examining ways to address other factors which compound precarious employment including lack of affordable housing, childcare and transportation.”
What We Can Do
Presently, the Urban Worker Project has initiated a campaign focusing on fairness for contract workers, calling on government to extend employment standards protections “so that solo self-employed, freelance and contract workers can access better pay, benefits and protections.” The campaign includes a petition, to which it is well worth adding voices.
The Project invites workers and others to sign up, donate and invite others to do the same. Precarious workers are the most vulnerable and isolated of all workers. This is an opportunity to break through the isolation and find strength in numbers.
As for workers who are currently struggling with issues related to precarious work, previous posts in this blog have recommended services such as The Worker Action Centre for supports and information.