Canada's Working Poor and Precarious Employment

This article was originally posted on Windsor's Poverty Reduction Site: Pathway to Potential, by Amanda Lefroncois

November 5, 2015

Canada’s working poor and precarious employment continues to rise. Precarious employment includes, but it is not limited to part-time, temporary and/or contract work; low-wages; limited to no benefits; on-call shifts; and uncertain periods of unemployment. Likewise, 70% of Canadians living in poverty are considered working poor, i.e. people who are working, but are not earning enough to get by. Some workers who aren’t earning enough need to supplement their income by taking on a second, or third part time job. It is important to highlight the negative aspects of working in precarious jobs, and the disadvantage the working poor face in order to devise strategies to improve these problematic issues.

Earlier this month, Social Policy in Ontario (SPON) spoke about an explosion of workers only earning a minimum wage (in 1997, one in forty Ontarians earned the minimum; today it’s one in eight), with a difficulty for workers to even find full-time employment. Even if one is able to find full-time employment, working 35 hours per week for 52 weeks per year at the minimum wage of $11.25 per hour, workers are earning 12% below the low-income cut off. For full SPON article, click here. Similarly, Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) reported earlier this year that only half of employees aged 25-65 working in the Toronto-Hamilton labour market are receiving more than a minimum wage for their full-time employment. For full report on PEPSO’s findings, click here.

However, we should not solely fixate on wages alone, and include other factors that contribute to a higher quality of life. PEPSO notes that raising wages may have little affect on those in precarious working environments because their hours may fluctuate based on the employers’ needs. For example, many employers implement “on-call” shifts, where employees are scheduled part-time hours, but must call in before their shift to ensure the employee is needed for work. In this case, raising the worker’s wage will have little effect if they are continuously being “called off” their scheduled shifts.

This continuous rise of employees in precarious employment calls to question what employers can do to create a more stable environment for employees. Advocating for a living wage will assist all employees, but especially those considered as “working poor”. A living wage provides sufficient pay for the basic necessities of life, so individuals can live and participate as active citizens in their community. Unfortunately, because the government does not mandate a living wage, employers are slow to be made aware of and adopt a living wage. An example of the discrepancy between minimum and living wage can be found in British Columbia: the minimum wage is $10.45, but in Vancouver, the living wage is nearly double, $20.68.

Employment standards also need to be strengthened. Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, created 43 specific policy recommendations related to a review of Ontario’s Labour Relations Act and its Employment Standards Act. These policies are organized into four main sections: Incremental Reforms in Employment Standards, Incremental Reforms in Labour Relations Practices, Protection of Collective Action by Non-Union Workers, and Application of Employment Standards and Collective Bargaining at a Sectoral Level. For Unifor’s complete report, please click here.

Some are arguing for a Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI), which would provide individuals and families with enough income to live above the poverty line. In Manitoba, from 1974 to 1979, The Mincome Pilot gave 1300 low-income families an additional income ranging from $3,800 to $5,800 to their current annual income for three years and had very promising results. Workers were more likely to wait for a more fitting job, rather than taking the first one available to them, which might have been a low paying job or dangerous work. Other highlights included mothers didn’t return to work as quickly so they could stay home and raise their children, and teenagers who normally would have dropped out of high school to help support their families stayed in school. Calgary, Edmonton, and communities in Prince Edward Island have showed interest in piloting the GLI programs. GLI in conjunction with a mandated living wage would ensure those working full-time would not fall below the poverty line, but well above it.

According to Statistics Canada, Canada has one of the highest percentages of low-paid workers among similarly industrialized populations (25%). This is higher than in European countries and similar to the American percentage. It is about time that we, as a country, change that.