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What Makes Us Unequal? Precarious Jobs

Andrew Longhurst asks why we still treat temp workers as second class. First of three new inequality insights.

Emily Fister 30 Aug

Emily Fister is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

In his last year of undergrad at the University of British Columbia, Andrew Longhurst noticed his friends grow increasingly anxious.

On the cusp of entering the workforce, their bachelor's degrees were no longer a one-way ticket to permanent employment, some joined temporary work agencies in the hopes of scoring some on-call office or construction work. At best, they found part time or contract gigs to pay the bills.

Temp agency work, Longhurst realized, appeared to be an increasingly common choice for young people living in a pricy city like Vancouver. It got him wondering whether it was a growing trend, and what the long-term ramifications might be.

Now in the second year of his master's in human geography at Simon Fraser University, Longhurst has put a face to the rise in temp agency work in the province. The result of his inquiry, a recent report titled "Precarious: Temporary Agency Work in British Columbia," is based on interviews with temp agency workers and staff, industry experts and former B.C. Employment Standards Branch staff. He earned the research opportunity, along with mentorship and funding, through an internship with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Whether called contract, casual or seasonal work, temp agency work tends to be an insecure arrangement where workers are contracted by a third-party client to supply temporary labour in their workplace. Though the worker is supervised by the third-party client, they're still an employee of the agency.

The work takes many different forms, but mostly involves general labour assignments on an on-call basis. It may be a filing job in an office for two weeks, or day labour on a construction site or in a warehouse.

According to Statistics Canada, the number of temp agency workers in B.C. has more than doubled in the last 10 years, from 8,848 jobs in 2004 to 19,580 by 2013.

In particular, the post-recession years (2009-2013) saw a major increase in temporary jobs. Back in 2004, only 24 per cent of new jobs in B.C. were temporary, while 76 per cent were permanent. As of 2013, 40 per cent of new jobs in B.C. were temporary and 60 per cent were permanent.

Many temp agency workers live thinly. The most recent number, from a 2004 Statistics Canada survey, shows that the total yearly median income for temporary workers in Canada was $7,850 compared to $31,360 for permanent employees.

Longhurst says that the rise in temp work is one piece of a larger story of inequality, where work is shifting from permanent to temporary across Canada and many OECD countries.

He argues the B.C. government hasn't properly addressed the trend, and his report findings stress that legislation like the Employment Standards Act (ESA) needs updating, with recommendations to ensure equal treatment for temp workers performing work comparable to permanent workers.

His research also exposed several violations under the ESA, including the fact that approximately two-thirds of Lower Mainland employment agencies were not licensed with the Employment Standards Branch.

The Tyee sat down with Longhurst to talk more about his findings, and how temp worker rights might be better protected.

On what struck him most about temp agency work and its effects:

"Broadly speaking, it's the last resort. For a lot of younger people struggling to find jobs, the temp agency is an obvious start if you're trying to make your way into employment.

"One of the young women I interviewed is a woman of colour. She talked about the fact that her parents worked all their lives in the public sector, in unionized government jobs. They had pensions to fall back on in their retirement.

"She said that, 'When we were growing up, we were pretty stable, pretty middle class.' And now she's in her early 30s and nowhere near that place, doesn't even come close to it. She talked about not having enough employment through temp agencies to pay her bills. As a response, she was taking on debt, using [her] credit card as the safety net.

"For her, the temp work wasn't sufficient or adequate to make ends meet. The labour market is really changing, and turning towards this growth in precarious and temporary employment."

On the catch-22 of temporary work:

"When we see inadequate income assistance rates, we often see a growth of the bottom-end of the labour market. So there's a growth of people that are living in poverty because income assistance rates are inadequate. Or, for whatever reason, maybe they're unable to access things like employment insurance. Whatever the case may be, it often increases the pool of people seeking out work regardless of how insecure and precarious it is.

"When we have very precarious, low-wage work, it makes it very hard to have a decent income to keep [people] out of poverty... [but] work should lift people out of poverty, not sentence them to it."

On how the rights of temp agency and permanent workers differ:

"[Temp agency workers] can 'elect to work' -- they can choose to work or not, they're given that option. They're offered assignments by the temp agency and they can tell the agency 'yes' or 'no.' Because of the nature of that 'elect to work' characteristic, employment standards legislation in B.C. excludes them from notice of termination and severance pay.

"A temp agency worker can be let go at a moment's notice. No [formal] notice has to be given. The way it works for permanent workers... [as an employer], after a certain amount of time you either are obligated to provide a certain number of working days' notice of termination, or if you are not providing that, you provide severance pay and that's calculated, there's a formula. Or a combination of the two.

"Temp agency workers are entirely excluded from that. That's really significant, because it means that they work on this basis where they never have the ability to plan ahead. They're under the assumption that they have enough work that they can accept from the temp agency. But for many workers [interviewed for the study], that wasn't the case. There wasn't enough work to put full-time work together to make ends meet.

"Another issue which is not dealt within the Employment Standards Act, which really requires an overhaul and update, is the fact that in temp agency work, worker mobility in the labour market is limited or restricted because employers often are required to pay what's called a 'buyout fee' to an employment agency if they want to bring that worker on directly; that is, work for them in a permanent, direct position. This limits their ability to move from different jobs and constrains them, keeping them on the payroll of the employment agency."

On policy changes we can make right away:

"The Employment Standards Act needs to be examined and modernized, because it doesn't reflect the realities of the labour market, the various forms of precarious employment. But reformed, modernized legislation can't only exist in writing. It needs to be enforced. In B.C. we had, in the early 2000s, significant cuts to the Employment Standards Branch and its enforcement capabilities. We need to see those numbers returned and reflecting current employment.

"Right now we have a complaint-driven process, where workers in precarious employment [are burdened with the responsibility to] try to enforce their rights that they should be provided in the workplace. We need to see regular inspections of sectors that employ people in incredibly precarious positions."

On how his research fits into a large picture of inequality:

"Employment and the way that the labour market is being restructured and transformed is certainly a key part of what's contributing to growing inequality.

"Certainly we know that at the top end, things like CEO pay have grown enormously, but wages at the bottom have either remained stagnant or even declined in real wages over the past number of decades. We have to recognize that inequality is certainly related to how the labour market is being restructured, and not necessarily to benefit workers.

"Inequality may seem like an abstract concept, but I think when you explore different dimensions of it, like work and employment, you see that it's something that is experienced on a daily basis for people -- and it's very real. It's alarming to document it, to see that there are policy solutions out there and ways to tackle these issues that could easily be implemented, and there really is no reason we're not addressing them.

"It's frustrating, but it's also encouraging to talk to people that are really trying to do their best. For me, the bottom line is that people don't need to be struggling that hard."

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Next weekend: Did you know that Canadian mothers earn about 12 per cent lower hourly wages than those without children? What are mothers' rights in the workplace and how do organizations play a role in supporting them? The Tyee speaks with UBC sociology associate professor Sylvia Fuller about motherhood career penalties, as part of our three-part inequality ideas series.  [Tyee]

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