Precarious Employment in Canada: An Overview

(Disponible en français : Emploi précaire au Canada : un survol de la situation)

What is precarious employment?

Simply put, precarious employment is a “bad job”. However, problems arise when we try to define and measure more precisely the characteristics that constitute a “bad job”.

According to the International Labour Organization, precarious employment refers to an inadequacy of rights and protection at work. This can apply to informal work, but also to several types of formal work, including subcontracting, temporary contracts, interim work, certain types of self-employment and involuntary part-time work. These types of employment are more precarious because they are associated with reduced financial security stemming from lower wages, less access to benefits such as private pension plans and complementary health insurance, and greater uncertainty about future employment income.[1]

Studies on precarious employment also refer to non-standard work and to vulnerable workers –  workers in precarious jobs. Although available statistics are an imperfect measure for precarious employment, the trends and composition effects of these statistics provide important insights into the state and impact of precarious employment on Canadian society.

What statistics do we have about precarious employment in Canada?

Figure 1 illustrates the proportions of workers in permanent employment in relation to other classes of workers. In 2017, some 15% of working Canadians were self-employed. Among the self-employed population, some 53% were doing well enough to either incorporate or hire employees. In this category, men significantly outnumbered women by a margin of over 2 to 1.

Figure 1 : Total Employed by Class of Worker: Permanent, Temporary and Self–employed by sex, 2017

Notes: Precarious Self-employed includes: all independent workers who are unincorporated and without paid help. Self-employed includes all independent workers who have either with paid help or are incorporated.Temporary workers hold a paid position with a predetermined end date. These jobs include: seasonal jobs, casual jobs, temporary jobs (that is, term or contract jobs, including work done through a temporary help agency), and other temporary work.
Source: Figure prepared by the author using data from Statistics Canada, Tables 282-0002, 282-0012, 282-0014, and 282-0080, CANSIM (database), consulted 31 October 2018.

The remaining 47% of self employed workers (roughly 7% of all workers) were in more precarious circumstances. Of this group, men outnumbered women, by 53% to 47%. In addition, 12% of all employees were in temporary positions. Women temporary workers outnumbered men by 52% to 48%.

Moreover in 2017, 5.6% of workers were involuntarily employed part-time and 14.5% of workers were voluntarily working part-time. Women comprised 65% of part-time workers, far outnumbering men. Among core-aged employees (ages of 25 to 54) temporary workers were more likely than permanent employees to be working part-time involuntarily (42% vs. 33%). In contrast, self-employed part-timers were less likely to be working part-time involuntarily than their employee counterparts.[2]

In total, it is possible to estimate that between 27% and 45% of all Canadian workers do not have what we traditionally think of as stable full-time jobs. Moreover, a large proportion of these non-standard jobs, as high as 25% of the paid work force, could be considered precarious (i.e. temporary, precarious self-employed or involuntarily part-time).

What are the recent trends?

Figure 2 shows the trends in precarious self-employment, involuntary part-time and temporary employment for men and women since the 2008 recession. These trends provide a partial picture of the evolution of precarious employment in Canada. This is because other dimensions of precarious employment could not be considered (e.g. low wages), but also because these types of jobs may overlap (e.g. a self-employed worker may also be involuntarily working part time), and because these trends sometimes run in opposite directions.

Figure 2: Numbers of Precarious Self-Employed, Involuntary Part-Time and Temporary Persons 15 Years of Age and Over, Canada, 2007 – 2017

Notes: Precarious Self-employed includes: all independent workers who are unincorporated and without paid help. Temporary workers hold a paid position with a predetermined end date. These jobs include: seasonal jobs, casual jobs temporary jobs (that is, term or contract jobs, including work done through a temporary help agency), and other temporary work.
Source: Figure prepared by the author using data from Statistics Canada, Tables 282-0002, 282-0012, 282-0014, and 282-0080, CANSIM (database), consulted 31 October 2018.

Involuntary part-time employment increased for both men and women during the recession. As labour market conditions improved, involuntary part-time employment decreased for women but remained stable for men. Women who were precarious self-employed increased gradually (14%) over the ten-year period, while the numbers of precarious self-employed men declined slightly. Temporary employment situations for men and women increased during the recession and have remained stable or increased slightly throughout the recovery.

Data also reveal differences related to age and industry sector. In 2017, 32% of 15 to 24-year old workers held temporary employment in contrast to 10% of 24 to 55-year-olds and 11% of workers 55 years and older. Figure 3 illustrates that the education, information, culture and recreation, and agriculture sectors have larger proportions of temporary employees.[3]

Figure 3: Permanent and Temporary Employees by Industry in 2017

Source: Figure prepared by the author using data from Statistics Canada.  Table 14-10-0072-01 Job permanency (permanent and temporary) by industry, annual (x 1,000) consulted 31 October 2018

Figure 4 illustrates the numbers of precarious self-employed and temporary workers by occupational category and sex. The services-producing sector has significantly larger numbers of precariously employed, with healthcare and social assistance, education and wholesale and retail trade being the leading occupations.

Figure 4: Temporary and Precarious Self-employed by Industry and Sex in thousands, 2017

Source: Figure prepared by the author using data from Statistics Canada, Tables 282-0002, 282-0012, 282-0014, and 282-0080, CANSIM (database), consulted 31 October 2018

In addition, a study by the Law Commission of Ontario concluded that racialized persons, immigrants, Indigenous persons, persons with disabilities and older adults are also overrepresented.

Additional Resources

Bedard M. et. al. Onze propositions pour un meilleur régime d’assurance-emploi, IRPP, 23 July 2015

Busby, C. et. al. Precarious Positions: Policy Options to Mitigate Risks in Non-standard employment, CD Howe Institute, (December 2016).

Fox, Dam et. al, The Economic Well-Being of Women in Canada, Statistics Canada, 16 May 2018.

Johal, Sohan. et. al, Working without a Net: Rethinking Canada’s social policy in the new age of work, Mowat Centre, (November 2016)

Ontario – The Changing Workplaces Review – Final Report – see Chapter 4: Vulnerable workers in precarious jobs (May 2017)

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All, (May 2015).

____________.  The Future of Social Protection: What works for non-standard workers? (May 2018)

Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO), McMaster University and the United Way – Toronto, It’s More than Poverty: Employment Precarity and Household Well-being, February 2013

_______________.. The Precarity Penalty: The Impact of employment precarity on individuals, households and communities and what to do about it, May 2015.

Tal, Benjamin. On the Quality of Employment in Canada, CIBC Economics, 28 November 2016.

Authors: Dominique Fleury and Elizabeth Cahill, Library of Parliament

[1]       Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All, (May 2015).

[2]       Martha Patterson, Who works part time and why?, Statistics Canada, 6 November 2018.

[3]       Data related to full and part time work in specific industries is not published by Statistics Canada in table formats.

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