A growing number of British Columbians are working odd hours for poor pay and no benefits, according to a new report that suggests “precarious” work has become the norm in the province.
A first-of-its kind study conducted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and researchers at Simon Fraser University found roughly half of surveyed British Columbian workers did not have benefits, steady pay or other hallmarks of what used to be a typical job.
And a further 37 per cent of workers, the study’s authors suggested, were in some kind of “precarious” work.
Kendra Strauss, a labour studies professor at Simon Fraser University and one of the report’s authors, says that points to a growing polarization in B.C.’s labour market, where even though jobs are abundant many workers are struggling to make ends meet.
“This idea that people have their choice of job isn’t true,” Strauss said. “We have people who get stuck at the bottom end of the labour market.”
Strauss and the other researchers surveyed 3,000 British Columbian workers aged 24 to 65 in late 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the world’s economy.
Iglika Ivanova, a senior economist with the CCPA, said their goal was to learn if the low unemployment rate and strong job numbers of the day were actually translating into wins for workers.
They also wanted to understand more about the prevalence of “precarious” work, a term typically used to describe jobs with uncertain hours, pay, protections and security.
“We were trying to see what the labour market really looks like for people, beyond just the number of jobs,” said Ivanova.
The results were striking. Thirty per cent of respondents said they had been required to work two jobs at the same time in the previous three months. Roughly four in 10 respondents said they did not have benefits associated with their work. One in 10 were working jobs that were explicitly short-term or casual, and 17 per cent said their income could vary significantly week to week.
Researchers analyzed how many workers had a “standard” job — a single, steady job with at least 30 hours of work a week and benefits.
Only about half of workers surveyed reported having such work, Ivanova said, a percentage that shrank among marginalized groups. About 60 per cent of racialized women, recent immigrants and Indigenous people worked non-standard jobs, the survey found, and such work was more common outside Metro Vancouver.
Strauss cautions the survey data on its own can’t draw conclusions about why those gaps exist, but suggests it points to deeply entrenched inequalities in the quality of existing jobs.
“The idea is that the job is a path to economic security and to having a good life, and I think that’s no longer holding true,” Ivanova said.
Ivanova and her colleagues then further classified 37 per cent of respondents as working “precarious” jobs, a term that refers to a high level of instability and uncertainty in day-to-day work. In comparison, just 18 per cent of jobs were considered “secure.”
There is no universal definition for precarious jobs, and not all workers in precarious jobs are low-income. Researchers for this project classified jobs as “precarious” based on an index that incorporated whether they had regular hours, steady pay, a guarantee of long-term employment and protection under provincial labour laws.
“This study shows that precarious work is more widespread than previously thought and extends beyond gig work,” said BC Federation of Labour president Sussanne Skidmore.
The study found those bad jobs meant bad health outcomes, too. More than a quarter of workers in jobs that researchers considered precarious reported poor mental and physical health, considerably more than other surveyed workers.
Precarious workers also reported way higher rates of stress and said the demands of work were more likely to interfere with their family life or duties. Nearly 40 per cent of parents with precarious jobs said a lack of child care impacted their ability to work, for example, compared to 10 per cent of people in secure jobs.
“Without continuous employment and without full-time hours, many people find it very difficult to plan for their future or afford some of the basics of life,” Strauss said. She believes that’s because many key benefits — like dental care — are linked to steady employment.
“When you make our social safety net and link it to employment, you actually end up with the most secure and the best-paid workers having the best benefits,” Strauss said.
Ivanova said it’s unclear how and if the labour market has changed since they conducted their survey in 2019. The pandemic, Strauss noted, may have worsened labour conditions for many workers because of the rising prevalence of “gig” jobs and temporary contracts.
On the other hand, Strauss said, the provincial government had passed new laws protecting workers, most notably a guarantee of at least five paid sick days for every employee. And the most recent federal budget includes billions for a new dental care program that could lead to hundreds of thousands of British Columbians receiving insurance.
Strauss and Ivanova say they plan to conduct a second survey this year to measure the pandemic’s effects and to collect data on other specific groups, including people with disabilities and LGBTQ2S+ British Columbians.
Strauss believes the study’s findings are still relevant today. B.C.’s unemployment rate was just 4.6 per cent in February.
“Although employment overall has rebounded the patterns of employment remain uneven,” Strauss said.