The Precariat and Canada’s Poverty Problem


Following the global recession of 2008 to 2009, much has been written about the economic “recovery” of Canada and the return to strength and consistency of the Canadian workforce. But this return is really two separate recoveries – one for those lucky Canadians who maintained or regained their full-time employment and suffered few ill effects in the long-term, and the other for those who endured a near-decade-long rollercoaster of increasingly precarious work, uncertain futures, and shaky financial realities.

This is the “new normal,” so stated by Finance Minister Bill Morneau: a Canada where a large number of people – particularly younger people entering the workforce for the first time and those members of the “working poor” most at-risk in economic turmoil – struggle to make ends meet, jumping between contract jobs, temporary gigs, part-time jobs, and various stages of underemployment.

In July 2014, 18,000 full-time jobs disappeared in Canada, only to be offset by 60,000 new part-time jobs. A similar trend haunted all of 2016, a year in which the number of full-time jobs added to the Canadian economy was considered “statistically insignificant.” At the same time, in a recent survey, 52 per cent of workers in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) reported being employed in some version of precarious work. Precarious and part-time work is on the rise.

The volatile economic conditions of Canada’s precariat populace – and those on the periphery in the working class – is evident in the numbers beyond net job creation, and when we dig deep into the financial livelihood of Canadian households, it becomes obvious that we cannot talk about precarity without also talking about poverty.

When you visualize a precarious worker, it might look like the young freelance writer who scrambles between low-paying gigs and unpaid “exposure” work to build a portfolio – and this is the reality for many people. But precarity goes far beyond to include workers across all sectors, including many of the women who make up nearly 70 per cent of all part-time workers.

The 70 per cent of Canadians living in poverty are part of the “working poor:” people who are working, but don’t make enough to get by. Between 1980 and 2005, the average earnings among the least wealthy Canadians fell by 20 per cent. In 2015, the average student leaving university entered the workforce with an average of $27,000 in debt, and last year, for the first time ever, Canadian household debt was greater than its GDP.

All of these conditions leave many workers and their families on the edge, precariously employed and precariously housed, struggling to buy groceries or pay their hydro bills. And the impact of food insecurity, poverty, housing instability and unemployment increases significantly in communities of racialized and Indigenous people.


Montréal May 1, 2017 “$15 minimum wage” © Jody Freeman


How did we get here?

While the emergence of precarious work is mostly spoken of as an unwanted but unavoidable new reality, there are actual proponents of the trend towards precarity, though they prefer to describe it in terms of a demand for flexibility on the part of employees and a generational rejection of the traditional 9 to 5, rather than insecurity borne of economic conditions. This mindset doesn’t just belong to those company executives at Uber and Airbnb who make millions off the budding “sharing economy,” but also members of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and others who argue that the glut of temporary and part-time work is, in part, simply a result of an aging population wanting to extend workforce participation.

It is difficult to accept the idea that employee demand for flexibility is driving the massive and rapid shift away from the secure employment conditions of previous generations to one where only 2 per cent of workers under the age of 20, and 9 per cent of workers between the ages of 20 to 24, have workplace pensions.

It sits under the same umbrella as the age-old argument used by detractors of collective bargaining that employees, on their own, have the same negotiating power as national and international companies staffed with teams of lawyers, and that regulatory labour standards are burdensome to the point of economic stagnation. It is borne of a similar belief that led to the creation of “Right to Work” laws now so entrenched in the United States. At the same time, this perspective seems to fail to consider how precarious work is emerging in Canada alongside other trends, like the decline in unionization rates that has been occurring since the 1980s, and the fact that close to half of temporary workers are under the age of 30, fewer than half of whom are able to transition to full-time work within three years.

Exacerbating this, while the Canadian economy has shifted away from the traditional job structure, the social safety net systems have not. Employment Insurance (EI) continues to operate based on a premise that most workers are employed full-time with a single employer, rather than the part-time hours and erratic, periodic work that many actually experience. Such a structure disadvantages precarious workers, as many of them are unable to accrue sufficient hours to qualify for employment insurance, or are left to receive fewer weeks of EI overall.

In my own experience, it often feels more common than not to meet people who have jumped from unpaid internship to unpaid internship, then from contract job to contract job. It is especially prevalent among those I know seeking to eke out a life through the arts, journalism or activism they are passionate about – roles that once could be found housed within a single employer who could provide them benefits and sick days. These freelancers and contract workers are part of a larger pool of people in their 20s and 30s, many with substantial debts, who see no future of home ownership, long-term company-based careers or other hallmarks of economic success met by many in previous generations.

The full impact of this unpredictability and insecurity, particularly for a generation of people who are also looking at growing income inequality, remains to be seen, but these trends show the cracks in a system based on each generation achieving the same economic performance as the previous ones have.

What happens next?

In the face of these startling statistics, the future of the Canadian worker seems rather bleak, and without intervention it may well continue to be that way – but it does not have to.

Whatever comes of the consultations and pilot projects around basic income in Canadian communities, it provides a foundation for the critical conversation workers, people outside the workforce, and policy-makers alike must have: what is the value of persons in Canada and what is required for them to have an adequate standard of living?

Luckily, we already have the necessary guiding principles for these conversations. Under international human rights law, people in Canada have a right to fair and paid work, a right to earn their living by work which is freely chosen, and a right to experience just and favourable conditions during employment. Reciprocally, governments in Canada have a legal obligation to meet and fulfill this right.

The shift in this conversation from one exclusively of market and economic growth to one of rights is essential. It is also a shift from viewing human rights as theoretical abstractions to practical, actionable parts of our daily lives. When we create policy that views people in Canada as inherent rights-bearers, and looks comprehensively at their needs through a lens of human rights, we can start to end poverty and ameliorate the conditions of the working poor. When we work to promote stronger labour standards, and view workers as partners within an economy that recognizes their basic dignity, everyone benefits.

Economic rights get very little play in Canada, frequently edged out of our conversations on human rights, where we choose to focus on political and civil life through avenues like freedom of expression and freedom of religion, rather than the right to food or water. Certainly, all human rights have intrinsic value. But Canada is a country where nearly 20 million people in the population are workers; to not treat labour rights as indispensable and urgent is to not value commitments we have previously made to human rights.

It is also not just a question of human rights. Income is the largest single determinant of health. Poverty costs provinces like Ontario somewhere between $10 and $13 billion every year, and estimates place the cost of poverty on the Canadian health care system to be $7.6 billion. Low income, poverty and unstable employment go hand-in-hand with other social ills in Canada that seem to be trending upward: homelessness, housing instability and food insecurity. Just as poverty is bad for everyone who lives in Canada for these social and economic reasons, an unchallenged norm of precarity in which workers are devalued is bad for social and economic stability across the country.

We can do something about it. Provincial shifts towards progressive labour policy, like the Ontario government’s announced intentions to meet the demands for a $15 minimum wage and proposed requirement that employers pay part-time and full-time workers who do the same job the same wage, is a key first step. But it’s not enough, from both a practical lens – how does someone get by on this minimum wage in a city like Toronto where the living wage is closer to $18.50 for many? – and a larger cultural one.

A society advocating for healthy cultural life must value the artists, writers, designers, teachers, and service providers who contribute to a creative, educated and cared-for community.

A feminist society must seek to not only advance the engagement of women in political life, but to build solutions that address the underlying obstacles to the full economic empowerment of women.

A society that seeks reconciliation must do more to address systemic and institutionalized discrimination that leaves Indigenous and First Nations communities to experience wildly disparate levels of poverty and unemployment.

To truly address and end precarious work from consuming future generations in total, we need national leadership on wage standards and income redistribution, poverty and housing, childcare and education. We need a movement for social change as strong as the labour champions who brought us the conditions and systems – like weekends and work weeks capped at 40 hours – we now take for granted. And we need both a government and a community that recognizes the economic, social, and cultural human rights as equal to the civil and political rights for which we claim global and moral leadership.

Laura Neidhart is based in Ottawa, where she works for Canada Without Poverty (CWP), a national human rights and anti-poverty charitable organization. Prior to joining CWP, she worked on a number of economic and social justice projects focused on housing and prison reform in the United States and United Kingdom, and she continues to work on freelance non-profit communications and fundraising projects targeted at both upstream social change and direct service.