Understanding Precarious Work in Canada

(Disponible en français : Le travail précaire au Canada)

The world of work is constantly changing. Full-time positions with job security that were commonplace in previous generations are being replaced by precarious arrangements that have no benefits, fewer protections and lower pay. There is no universally accepted definition for precarious work, since precarious work is often a group of interconnected problems. An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report and the European Union have advanced frameworks to better understand precarious work. These frameworks organize characteristics of precarious work into three broad dimensions related to security, income and opportunity. See Figure 1.

Figure 1: Characteristics of Precarious Work

This information graphic illustrates the three dimensions of precarious employment and situates the many different elements of precarious employment. Under the dimension of income precarious employment elements include; low-wage employment, no pension, no health, dental or drug benefits, no paid sick days, volatile earnings that change from month to month, not enough hours to qualify for Employment Insurance, no parental leave benefits. The dimension of security includes: non-standard working arrangements including solo self-employment, temporary contract, involuntary part-time, on-call with an unpredictable schedule and number of hours, reliant on platform work: TaskRabbit, Amazon Mechanical Turk, unpaid intern, seasonal, working for a temp agency, temporary foreign worker, undocumented migrant, exposed to hazardous work and unsafe conditions, afraid to join a union, not aware of their rights. The dimension of opportunity includes: no opportunities for promotion or a better job, not getting any training, no clear career path, can not get their credentials recognized.

Figure 1 illustrates how precariousness cuts across multiple dimensions. For example, a person might be a low-wage, temp agency worker, with no paid sick days and no opportunities for promotion.

The framework also illustrates that one characteristic by itself does not necessarily make a job precarious. For example, a highly skilled computer programmer may prefer the flexibility of a temporary contract, but earns a high wage. Or a worker at the beginning of their career may be earning a low wage but has opportunities for training and advancement. Indeed, there are many who choose to work part-time in order to attend school or to accommodate a disability or family responsibilities.

Having a better understanding of what it means to be precariously employed allows policy makers to craft effective interventions that reduce income insecurity and other uncertainties.

Incidence of Full-Time, Part-Time, Temporary and Solo Self-Employment

Most workers in Canada are in full-time permanent positions. Figure 2 illustrates the recent trends. The number of full-time permanent jobs (solid blue line) increased steadily from 2015 to 2019.  With the onset of COVID-19, those numbers fell sharply but then began to recover. The percentage of full-time permanent employment as a percentage of all employment (dotted red line) trended upwards slightly between 2015 and 2019 (from 62.4% to 63.2%). It increased sharply to almost 66% after the onset of COVID-19.

Figure 2: Full-time Permanent Employees in thousands and as a Percentage of Employed Workforce, 2015 – 2020

Source: Figure prepared by the authors using data obtained from Statistics Canada. Table 14-10-0320-02 accessed 15 October 2020.

Thus, while the numbers of full-time permanent jobs fell, their share of the total employment increased, suggesting that full-time permanent jobs are indeed less precarious.

Because precarious work situations can include temporary and part-time employment, and solo self-employment (i.e. unincorporated, with no employees), it is challenging to capture them with existing labour force statistics. While the statistics are an imperfect proxy for precarious employment, the trends and composition effects of these statistics provide important insights into the state and impact of precarious employment on society. Figure 3 illustrates the recent trends as a share of total employment.

Figure 3: Recent Trends: Part-time, Solo Self-Employed, Part-time Temporary and Full-time Temporary Worker as a Percentage of the Employed Workforce, 2015 – 2020

Source: Figure prepared by the authors using data obtained from Statistics Canada. Table 14-10-0320-02 and Table: 14-10-0026-01 accessed 15 October 2020.

The percentage of permanent part-time workers as a share of total employment has been stable even since the onset of COVID-19. The share of temporary employment (both full-time and part-time) has fallen since the onset of COVID-19. Solo-self employment in 2020 is slightly higher.

Aggregate trends, however, can mask important composition effects. Disaggregated data reveal that some groups are more likely to hold precarious jobs. For example, the proportion of part-time and temporary workers is higher among youth aged 15 to 24 and women.

Men have been more likely to be solo self-employed although that trend may be changing. In addition, reports by the Law Commission of Ontario (LCO) and Chartered Professional Accountants Canada concluded that not only are youth and women overrepresented among precarious workers, but so too are racialized persons, immigrants, Indigenous persons, persons with disabilities and older adults.

The data in figure 4 illustrates different outcomes for men and women after the onset of COVID-19. The data suggests a quite a strong V-shape recovery for male employees (orange line). The numbers for women employees (purple line) have fallen further and have been slower to recover.

Figure 4: Different Experiences of Men and Women since COVID-19 Onset, in thousands of workers

Figure 4 is a line graph that shows the recent trends for workers who are employees and workers who are solo self-employed disaggregated by sex. In December 2019, there were approximately 8 million men and women workers who were employees. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of employees fell sharply. By April 2020, the number of male employees fell to 6.8 million and the number of women employees fell to roughly 6.5 million. By September 2020, the number of male employees had recovered to over 8 million while the number of women employees only recovered to about 7.7 million.

Source: Figure prepared by the authors using data obtained from Statistics Canada, 14-10-0288-02 –accessed 17 November 2020.

Also, the available data on precarious solo self-employment for women has continued to trend upward. This is consistent with recent reports that women are transitioning from other types of working arrangements into solo self-employment. This may reflect fewer workplace protections, accommodations and weaker bargaining power for women. It may also reflect the need for flexibility that solo self-employment affords, even if it is more precarious.

Government Response

Governments can help make workers less vulnerable and there have been several recent federal government initiatives aimed at doing so. Before COVID-19, the federal government implemented measures to give self-employed workers access to special Employment Insurance benefits and to enable private-sector employees to participate in group pension plans. The economic crisis caused by COVID-19 focused further attention on precarious employment.

Recognizing that many workers do not qualify for Employment Insurance and do not have paid caregiving or sick leave, the government has introduced the Canada Recovery Benefit, the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit. The government also introduced temporary changes to Employment Insurance to make benefits more generous and easier to access. While it is too early to predict how these measures will evolve, they do address common risks faced by workers in precarious situations.


Chen, Wen-Ho et. al., Assessing Job Quality in Canada: a Multi-dimensional approach, Statistics Canada, December 2018.

Busby, C. et. al., Precarious Positions: Policy Options to Mitigate Risks in Non-standard Employment, C.D. Howe Institute, 2 December 2016.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, Precarious Work: Understanding the Changing Nature of Work in Canada, 10 June 2019.

Author: Elizabeth Cahill, Library of Parliament