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The Temp Work Trap: No Security, Low Pay and Lax Employment Law Enforcement

Temp agencies are replacing regular jobs, and BC response hasn’t kept pace.

By Rachel Sanders 2 Oct 2017 |

Rachel Sanders is a Vancouver journalist, editor and photographer. Her work has been broadcast on CBC Radio and has appeared in the Toronto Star, the Georgia Straight and the Victoria Times Colonist. Find her on Twitter here.

When Frank got sick two years ago, he lost his job. For three months, he lived on his savings while he recovered. Just when he was feeling well enough to go back to work, the transmission on his truck died.

“I couldn’t afford to fix it because I spent all my savings money on just my daily bills,” Frank told The Tyee during a phone interview. “So I had to go to the temp agency that I’d hired people from for years and years and knock on their door very humbly and ask for some day labour.”

Frank, who asked that his last name not be used for fear he’d be blacklisted by the Metro Vancouver temporary employment agencies where he makes his living, is a framing carpenter. The $80 a day that he earns as a day labourer is much less than he’s used to earning as a skilled worker. Some days, the agency pays him even less than they’re supposed to — and he knows they’re billing clients at least double his hourly wage. But if he complains, they might stop giving him work.

He can’t afford to get a full-time job. He doesn’t have any savings left to pay daily expenses while he waits two weeks for that first paycheque. Day labourers get paid at the end of every day.

Temp agency work, said Frank, is a vicious cycle.

“These people know they’ve got you by the curlies,” he said. “You need to eat, you need to pay your bills, you need bus fare. And you don’t make enough money at any of these temp agencies to save up money.”

Frank is one of a growing number of temporary workers in British Columbia.

How fast that number is growing, however, is not clear. Andrew Longhurst, a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote a report in 2014 called “Precarious: Temporary Agency Work in British Columbia”. He says the lack of data on temp agencies in B.C. is a problem.

“We don’t have a good understanding of what’s actually going on because we don’t have the evidence or the data to support and inform policymaking,” he said.

Temporary work in industries ranging from construction to office work to health-care support has been growing in B.C. and across Canada for decades. In this province, temporary agency work grew from 8,848 jobs in 2004 to 19,580 by 2013, according to Longhurst’s report. Since the 2008 recession, he found, the rate of temporary job growth was 21 per cent, while the rate of permanent job creation sat at four per cent.

But data collection at both the provincial and federal levels, said Longhurst, doesn’t accurately reflect the realities. Statistics Canada’s Labour Force survey isn’t able to capture the increasing complexity of temporary and contract work arrangements.

What’s more, he said, up to two-thirds of temp agencies in B.C. are not properly licensed by the Employment Standards Branch.

“Even just ensuring that the very minimum protection of having them registered or licensed with the branch, that’s not even being maintained,” he said.

Longhurt’s report recommended that the province conduct surveys to provide better data around temporary employment. That hasn’t happened.

And Longhurst said B.C. falls short in other ways as well.

Cuts to staffing at the Employment Standards Branch since 2002 and the implementation of a “self-help” approach have left temporary workers vulnerable, he said. The approach requires workers to fill out a form and seek a response from their employers before the branch will become involved.

Temp agency workers who spoke to The Tyee described problems ranging from wage theft to being fired for refusing unsafe work. Without a strong enforcement regime, said Longhurst, such problems can run rampant.

“The lack of proactive enforcement and protections in this sector for workers really does download all of these responsibilities onto workers to try and enforce their own rights,” he said.

There are also “loopholes” in B.C.’s employment law that make temp workers ineligible for notice of termination or severance pay.

“The fact that temporary agency workers are treated as second class workers, along with a whole number of other vulnerable workers, is quite alarming,” said Longhurst.

Compared to B.C., Ontario has made progress in creating protections for temporary workers in recent years.

Though a recent undercover investigative report in the Toronto Star revealed extensive problems in that province’s temporary employment industry, Ontario has at least put some protections for temp workers into law, including making them eligible for termination notice and severance pay.

Kendra Strauss, director of the labour studies program at Simon Fraser University, said policymaking in Ontario is aided by the fact that there is more available data on temp work in that province. A large community of labour law scholars in that part of the country has been researching temporary employment since the late 1990s. Recently, the university and community research initiative Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario has studied the extent of temporary employment in the Toronto area.

In B.C., Strauss said, the existing data sources are limited. Along with some of her students, Strauss is working with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives to compile information on temporary and precarious employment in B.C.

She’s hopeful that increasing interest in precarious employment and a commitment by B.C.’s new provincial government to examine issues surrounding low wage work will lead to improvements for temp workers. An increasingly precarious workforce, she said, comes with a price.

“We know that there are health impacts that we pay for through our health system. We know that there are impacts in terms of people having to access social supports,” she said. “We as a society already bear the costs of precarious and temporary work. And those costs are borne disproportionately by low paid and temporary workers themselves.”

In an emailed statement, Labour Minister Harry Bains said he will be reviewing and modernizing employment standards.

“I expect that issues pertaining to non-standard employment such as casual, part-time, temporary and self-employed work, will form part of this review,” he said.

The statement also noted that the BC Law Institute is reviewing the Employment Standards Act and is expected to release a report early next year. The review, said Bains, may look at issues that affect temporary workers. Its recommendations “are expected to help inform the ministry’s own review of the Employment Standards Act,” the statement said.

For Frank, the answer to his vicious cycle of precarious temp work is simple.

“Higher wages,” he said.

If he could just save up that two-week buffer, he’d be able to afford to get back into full-time, better-paid work. His outlook, though, is optimistic.

“Life gives you a little roller coaster ride, there’s always the ups and downs,” he said. “It’s just a bad thing of fate that happened, that I got sick and had to lose everything. Had to start at the bottom, work my way up again.”  [Tyee]

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