Lyn is a shy mother of two, with long black hair, slim black-framed glasses and two draining jobs that even together don't give her much hope of getting ahead.
She gave up a career in China as an accountant and moved to Vancouver five years ago so that her kids could go to school in Canada. When she's not working at her brother's store on her day off, she makes $11.50 an hour putting in up to 50 hours a week at a chain grocery store on Hastings.
It wouldn't be a bad job, but paying overtime isn't one of the boss's policies, she says. She wants what she's owed but she's scared to report it. It's the same for her co-workers. None of them are happy about the way they're treated at work, but no one wants rock the boat. For now, she chips away at the debt she acquired moving here, and pours more than half of her meager salary into rent.
Of course she wants to work as an accountant again, she says.
She has talked to the right people, she knows what it would take: language skills, time and money. Of those, she possesses not nearly enough at the moment. And though I meet Lyn at an ESL class investing still more hours to better herself, she worries she's stuck on the margins of a good life in British Columbia.
Lyn is one of thousands of largely invisible people in B.C. working two, three, sometimes more jobs in order to make ends meet, somehow piling those exhausting duties on top of caring for children and relatives while striving to gain the education needed to step up and off the low-wage treadmill.
Three years ago, the widespread nature of this tough reality in B.C. was masked by seemingly robust economic figures. In 2007 the province's unemployment rate stood at 4.2 per cent after 335,000 jobs had been created between 1997 and 2006. Beneath that surface, however, lived and worked many, many people like Lyn, as 21 per cent of women and nearly 30 per cent of men were employed in casual and non-standard work, according to a 2008 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
And then the global economic meltdown hit, causing anyone precariously employed to hang on for dear life to what they had, for fear of being kicked loose from the job market altogether.
I ask Lyn about her prospects.
"Right now I'm afraid to think about the future," she tells me.
The prospects for Lyn and others like her have been shaped not only by a rough economy but by policies enacted by the B.C. Liberal government since 2001. Complex changes to the Employment Standards Act have ushered in overtime averaging rules that cause employers to pressure workers into pulling long shifts over consecutive days. Call-in periods for employees have been reduced from two to four hours, giving people less time to rearrange their lives for the sake of a shift.
Posting employment standards and work schedules in the workplace was deemed unnecessary.
Enforcement of the act switched from routine government inspection to a complaint-based system devoid of requirement to investigate complaints. Fifty per cent of standards offices were closed.
New Canadians like Lyn, who are expected to make up two thirds of B.C.'s population by 2025, are especially likely to end up on this ragged edge of the labour market, according to a 2008 Statscan study.
Their wages were lower and their likelihood of being overqualified for work was higher. They also more commonly did involuntary part-time work -- a way of saying you are working an extra job to make up for wage or hours your primary job isn't giving you. "If someone has multiple part-time jobs, it's not because they're choosing part-time employment," Sylvia Fuller, a University of British Columbia sociologist and leading expert on Canadian employment trends, told The Tyee.
"People do choose part time employment for a variety of reasons, but if they're trying to get full-time hours with multiple part time jobs, it's because they can't find the adequate full time work."
The standard employment arrangement that came to prominence in the post-war era in Canada -- the full-time, 40-hour work week that most labour policies are based on -- has lost ground.
Non-standard work has emerged in its place; lower waged work that offers few benefits, tentative contracts and little mobility, while giving employers more power to dictate terms to their workers.
Two years ago, fewer than two out of three working Canadians had a standard employment relationship. That is, a stable, year-round, full-time position, with one employer and at one location that met their needs.
The other 36 per cent, according to Statscan, were employed in non-standard jobs; part-time permanent work, temporary full-time or part-time, self-employed employers or, by their own account, self-employed: in other words, workers that are especially vulnerable to recession and the bottom lines of private companies and governments.
Throughout the '90s and the aughts, public and private employers in Canada took a hit as economic globalization came to fruition. Manufacturing and production jobs, among others, were cut or sent off shore to keep the bottom line in tact.
Employers sought "flexibility" from their employees. New positions created tended to be part-time or temporary contracts that didn't offer the same degree of security and benefits as full-time positions.
These types of jobs aren't only vulnerable to economic insecurity; they often don't often include benefits, raises or promotions.
B.C. Liberal policy changes also increased both the supply of casual workers and the abundance of casual jobs, making it necessary for people to take nearly any available job, no matter how low paying or volatile.
Access to social assistance was complicated and restricted, along with a 30 per cent cut to the budget of the ministry of housing and social development, according to the CCPA's 2008 report on casual work. Additional changed to eligibility for single parents with children, waiting periods for social assistance and cuts to benefits furthered the likelihood of job seekers to take on non-standard, precarious work.
The privatization of crown corporations like B.C. Rail, part of B.C. Hydro and B.C. Ferries made well-paying jobs in the public service prone to cost reduction measures and cuts.
Meanwhile, the passing of bill C-29 in 2002 privatized and contracted out 9,000 jobs in B.C. health support services. This transformed accessible, dependable full time jobs, worked largely by immigrant workers, into low-wage part-time positions, which many employees now have to work two or three of to get by.
"While additional resources provide part of the solution, more must be done to develop innovative approaches to both meet the challenges and create the opportunities to better serve seniors, families and communities in our province," Colin Hansen, then minister of health services wrote in his introduction to the ministry's 2002/2003 annual service plan report.
In rural B.C., the gradual decline of forestry and logging industries shook the job market the hardest.
Between 1990 and 2008, workers in these industries endured an average 13.5 per cent unemployment rate compared to the 7.8 per cent average for all B.C. industries, according to Statscan figures supplied by a government published guide to the B.C. economy, current to Jan. 2010.
Traditionally high-paying jobs that supported families and the economies of whole communities were shed, forcing loggers and mill workers to take low-service sector jobs or seek work out of town, sometimes in other provinces.
The current Liberal administration knows that demographic shifts may also put those emerging into the B.C. labour market in a tight spot. "The overall aging of the workforce also has implications for the availability of potential labour supply to enter the workforce," concludes the 2009-2019 B.C. Labour Market Outlook. "The number of new entrants is expected to decline over time, meaning that migrants will become an increasingly important source of labour supply."
In Dec. 2009 the CAW, Canada's largest private sector union, began a nationwide campaign, taking action against the erosion of good jobs in Canada.
The B.C. Federation of Labour's campaign to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour has been touted by many as a bare necessity in providing economic security to those in low wage positions. But the government has opted instead to "offset financial circumstances and directly target benefits to individual needs" in drug costs, trades training, child care assistance and rental assistance, Minister Murray Coell wrote to The Tyee.
"Our government has held fast to the view that there are many better and effective ways to assist these workers apart from increasing minimum wage," wrote Coell.
Over the last decade, some of Canada's top academics have been researching who's working on the most fragile edges of economies across the countries.
Their ongoing research finds that vulnerable members of the workforce, who are most likely to work over time without proper pay or work multiple part time jobs to make ends meet, are not only the new Canadians that our economy will increasingly depend on.
'It's not the way it was'
On the sixth floor of a high-rise with a view of beautiful Coal Harbor, people work a different daily grind than those on the floors above and below them.
From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., unemployed women from all sectors of Vancouver's labour market come here to carve out a place in the economy. The YWCA's Focus at Work program offers workshops that help them assess their career interests, develop their employability and refine job-hunting skills.
In a real way, precarious work is a women's issue. More than twice as many women as men are stuck in part time work.
Statscan research from May 2009 showed that in the past 30 years, 45 per cent of "core age" women (15-24 years old) worked part-time versus just over 20 per cent of men the same age. In the last year, B.C. unemployment rates for men have dropped by 1.4 per cent, but have stayed the same for women. In July of this year, 28.1 per cent of employed women held part time jobs versus 9.3 per cent of men in B.C.
"It's not the way it was," Karen, a mother of three who's re-entering the work force after 19 years, tells me. "It's not full-time 40 hour weeks. It's casual, part-time, temporary contract..."
A chartered accountant, a manufacturing worker, a teacher from Columbia and a recent graduate are among those in the room who want back in the workforce. They're looking for jobs in the non-profit sector, social services, childcare or marketing, but they've had to meet the challenges of finding work head on.
Applying to jobs via email yields virtually nothing, they say.
The jobs they're looking for are never offered to the public, filled internally instead, or else hidden among mazes of contacts and networks. When they go for interviews, they are sometimes asked their age and the size of their family, and they sense their answers count against them. Some of them have been out of work for months, some for years. Everyone at the table wants the security that full-time work with a good organization brings. Commuting between two part-time jobs would be draining, being on call could disrupt and damage their home lives and working a temporary contract could spell disappointment, but most of them are more than willing to take the chance.
However, they're hoping that if the program works out, they won't have to.
The program claims an 82 per cent success rate and offers further help with the search once you've graduated. This approach, combined with being in a positive environment in the company of other women has been a godsend, participants said.
When I ask them what would help others in their position, they don't mince words.
One recommendation rings out with a bit more volume than the others.
More funding for progressive employment programs like this, yes, but more importantly, more available "childcare!" they exclaim, nearly in unison.
'We have to lift everybody up'
On Granville Street, past the clubs, sex shops and hostels, there is a storefront less popular than weekend haunts, but more important to the unemployed.
"We usually see about 200 new clients, now we're seeing 400... on a monthly basis... and we're not seeing it magically going away," Melanie Hardy, manager of the YWCA's Career Zone tells me.
"Youth... they're the last hired and the first fired."
The employment centre's central location in Canada's most expensive and desirable city invites a diverse clientele and a myriad of old and new trends.
A third of clients have multiple barriers to the job market. They steer around poverty, histories of sexual and substance abuse and mental health issues to get job ready.
Homelessness and unfinished high school often compound these stresses.
The remaining majority is a mélange of interests competing for a foot in the door.
University graduates are a more frequent fixture and an increasing number of internationals with temporary visas having been showing up on their doorsteps.
Highly educated 20-somethings with nothing to lose from Germany, Italy and other parts of the European Union are one more demographic in the urban Lower Mainland vying for jobs in customer service, hospitality and tourism.
These demands on the job market are meeting gradual developments head on: high paying, low-skilled jobs have been shed in the transition to a knowledge-based economy over the last 20 years. Over the last two decades, North American employers have shut down unionized factories here in favor of moves to low wage environments in the third world, leaving Canadian workers facing a job market heavily weighted towards barista and other service sector jobs
"They've been replaced by a lot of customer service, hospitality jobs, that are great, but you can't raise a family on them and pay the rent," Hardy laments.
"We have to lift everybody up, and that requires investment in education and training, as well as helping young people transition... to not just throw them out in to the labour market."
Hardy also thinks that part time or temporary opportunities can be beneficial.
She endorses an emerging employment counseling model that does away with staid assessment and one-track career exploration, instead encouraging direction by trying out many experiences. Temporary contracts and part-time jobs allow youth to try out a number of different jobs and potential careers, but these opportunities need to be formalized and supported.
Co-ops are often only offered within the corridors of education. Why not expand the possibilities for formal training provided by wage subsidies and internships to the rest of the job market?
This is where she feels government investment in job training should go, "especially in times of high unemployment like the recession. That's when you really need the government to still be engaging young people."
The worker's interests
Any search for the most precariously employed will take you beyond the glass towers and asphalt causeways of downtown, outside the sprawling Metro Vancouver suburbs, and into the fields that require planting and harvesting by human hand.
Every year, thousands of temporary foreign agricultural workers come to B.C. to work swathes of agricultural land in the Okanagan and the Fraser Valley. And the numbers are only growing.
In 2009, 3,437 temporary foreign agricultural workers came to B.C. from Mexico, South America and the Caribbean Islands, a significant increase from 1,484 in 2006. The total number of temporary foreign workers in B.C. that year was 44,381, according to Human Resources and Development Canada.
In Abbotsford in the Fraser Valley, Lucy Luna does front-line casework with farm workers on behalf of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
When I spoke with her, her desk was filled with E.I. claims, employment standards complaints, ICBC insurance forms and workers compensation cases.
"Anything. You name it," Luna tells me. However, organization is key.
Year in and year out, she and her staff educate temporary workers generation by generation, with the hope that in the future, more workers will want to unionize.
Only one farm is unionized in the Lower Mainland, but unionization is pivotal to protecting the rights of workers, Luna tells me. The low education level of most workers leaves them unable to advocate for themselves.
Some come to Canada with educations as low as grade six.
Opportunities for exploitation are legion.
Workers are bound to be working for one employer by their visa. If conditions are poor, if there is abuse or poor treatment, workers are often too scared to lose their job and opportunity in Canada to bring it to anyone's attention.
Even if there is a problem, if someone gets hurt or wants to leave an abusive employer, the consulates of their own countries who are supposed to represent workers are often their own worst enemy, says Luna.
"They're not representing the worker's interest. They're representing the employers' interest," says Luna.
Back in Vancouver, UBC labour economics researcher David Green confirmed for me that Luna's clients represent a burgeoning sector of precarious work in B.C..
"What a lot of labour groups are worried about, quite rightly, is that those people just feel like they have no rights," Green told The Tyee. "They don't know how to complain. They're worried they'll just lose their job and get sent back home if they do."
A better job
On the evening I meet Lyn at her ESL class on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, I enter a world hidden from most Vancouverites. Over 100 people have come from their one, two or more day jobs to gather in small classes at this education centre run by MOSAIC immigrant and refugee services.
They come three nights a week after changing beds in hotels or pulling 12-hour shifts at bakeries, staying from 6:30 till 9:30 to improve their English.
At the break, I hear Cantonese, Spanish, Vietnamese and Arabic spoken. A student sees me interviewing Lyn and steps forward to share her story.
Six days of the week, Yong spends long days making noodles for one of Chinatown's most popular restaurants. Her schedule is unpredictable and so is her pay. It's commonplace for them to not pay her on time, she tells me.
For the past year she's been taking classes at MOSAIC, working her way through the phases of the program.
When she's not at work, she's taking care of her daughter and trying to make her way through a citizenship application nightmare.
Months ago, she responded to an ad offering help filling out citizenship application forms and practicing for the test. Eager for a chance to have her forms filed and the application process underway, she went for it.
A botched application resulted in her being investigated by the government and being out thousands of dollars.
Never mind the woes of her working life, she just wants me publicize the fact that there are frauds out there trying to make money off of vulnerable new Canadians like her looking to get ahead.
I listen and write. Eventually she admits that, like so many who spend their working lives dealing with disappointment and exploitation, she wants something else. She would like to provide for her family by providing something to society other than its next bowl of noodles.
"I want to be a nurse."
Tomorrow: What B.C. labour experts are reading about the world of work.
Read more: Rights + Justice, Labour + Industry
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