A very precarious situation

From the rise of part-time work to the decrease in benefits, employment is increasingly unstable. But, how bad the situation is depends on your definition of “precarious,” according to a new CPA Canada report.

Nobody under the age of 65 needs to be told that the world of work has become more precarious. Whether it’s the decline of major sectors, such as manufacturing, or the rise of technology—from the Internet to AI—threatening good middle-class jobs, employment is increasingly unstable, with fewer guarantees of what tomorrow—never mind next year—might hold. New work arrangements often lack the same pay, benefits and protections of what previous generations enjoyed—and that’s having a profound impact on the Canadian economy. Francis Fong, chief economist for CPA Canada, recently authored a report on the very topic, entitled Navigating Precarious Employment in Canada: Who is Really at Risk? We talked to him recently about his research.

What motivated you to start delving into this, the notion of precarious employment?
It’s something that I have been looking at for quite some time now, maybe six or seven years, when I noticed that youth unemployment was staying quite a bit higher than normal after the Great Recession. But, in terms of looking at precarious work as a broader topic, precarious work is a function of a much larger debate we’re having about the future of work. We’re used to the notion of automation impact—more traditional goods-producing jobs, manufacturing, forestry, mining—but now we’re looking at the automation of more knowledge-based or service-based industries, like retail or transportation.

Is precarious work necessarily a bad thing? You could have a precarious but high-income-earning situation, such as a consultant or stockbroker, right?
From my perspective, precarious should always be considered a negative idea. The challenge is that we are likely categorizing people as precarious workers that are probably not precarious. As you pointed out, somebody who is a contract worker that’s extremely high-earning, like an IT consultant—they could be earning a six-figure salary but might work a few months here and a few months there, and may not know exactly what their working schedule looks like. But that is likely someone we should worry less about—and focus our attention on those who are more marginal but dealing with that same level of volatility.

So, for the purposes of economic study, you’re really trying to narrow the definition of precarious employment
Yes. The existing definition of precarious work is far too broad to be helpful from a policy perspective—and the reason for that is because we don’t want to exclude anyone. We want to be inclusive of everyone who faces precarity. The data we have on labour markets today only classifies part-time workers, contract workers, temporary workers—and that gives us a good starting point to figure out who might be precarious. What we’re trying to say with this report is: “Listen, before we move on to what to do about precarious workers, we need a better picture of who is actually precarious.” We need good data, collected regularly on those individuals, based on that definition.

You identify three sectors that are seeing disproportionate increases of part-time or temporary work, including culture and recreation, accommodation and food services, and educational services. Are they, by definition, more precarious?
The point I was trying to make with those stats is that, when we talk about precarious work, often we confuse it with part-time and temporary work. Part-time work may be not growing as a share of the overall economy—but it is growing in certain sectors, and those sectors might be more precarious than we thought. In the end, we can’t say with certainty that these people are precarious; there’s been near double-digit growth in the part-time share in certain sectors, but how do we know that they’re precarious? We don’t have a definition.

You also note in the report a particularly worrying trend for Canadians under 25.
If you look at the children of the Baby Boomers—the Echo Boom—you have a lot of people competing for a more limited pool of good-paying jobs and, consequently, there are people losing out. They’re falling into more precarious situations, even though they might have some sort of post-secondary education. One of the facts I point out in my paper is that it’s more educated people who are seeing increases of part-time employment, among that 20-to-24 age cohort.

In doing your research, did you get any indications that defining precarious employment is something being discussed by government?
I think, as a policy debate, it’s already moved on to what we should do about it. Most of the discussions I’ve seen are about how do we change EI to adapt to the changing labour market, or how can we consider minimum income as a possible solution. If we actually knew what the situation was—who’s impacted, where they are and what kind of industries they’re in—I think it would make for a far more useful debate.


Do you consider yourself to be in a precarious employment situation? What do you think about the rise in part-time and temporary work? Post a comment below.

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