The rise of the “gig economy” and on-demand work through platforms like Uber has ignited public debate about precarious work and what makes a “good job.”
Policymakers have been slow to respond, partly because the lack of data on the scale and impacts of precarious work makes it easier to skate around the issues.
It took months of public engagement for the BC government to learn what worker advocates have known for years—that some app-based ride-hail and food-delivery workers experience serious vulnerabilities due to their lack of basic workplace protections. And gig work is only the tip of the iceberg.
Our research shows that precarious work is an urgent problem in BC and has been since before the pandemic. In a province-wide survey of workers aged 25 to 65 that we conducted in late 2019, we found that only 49 per cent of workers surveyed had full-time, permanent jobs with benefits. The other half experienced various levels of insecurity, including contracts that were temporary, part-time, didn’t offer dependable hours or lacked benefits.
In this pilot BC Precarity Survey, we asked respondents about many aspects of their work lives, including different characteristics of job quality and security like working on call, frequent unexpected scheduling changes, stringing together multiple jobs to make ends meet and being unable to raise workplace safety or employment rights concerns at work for fear of retaliation. We then used their responses to categorize workers’ employment experiences on a spectrum ranging from Secure to Precarious.
We found that precarious employment is far more widespread in BC than many assume and puts tremendous strain on families and communities across the province.
BC saw historically low unemployment rates pre-pandemic, which should signal a strong labour market, yet we found that only 18 per cent of survey respondents were in Secure jobs while 37 per cent had Precarious jobs.
Secure jobs were not available to everyone: racialized and Indigenous workers were much less likely than white workers to have Secure jobs. And, Secure jobs were less common in Northern BC and the Interior than in Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island.
Workers in Precarious jobs—especially those with low incomes—were more likely to experience poorer physical and mental health. For many, work demands and job strain interfered with family responsibilities on a weekly basis (or multiple times a week), impacting not only the workers themselves but also their families. Parents in Precarious employment were far less likely to be able to afford school supplies and trips, or to have time to attend or volunteer at school and community-related events and activities.
While low-income workers in precarious jobs were the most vulnerable, we found that a number of higher paying jobs were Precarious as well. A surprising proportion of jobs that have traditionally been secure, such as in the public sector or that require university education, have now become Precarious, and precarity negatively impacts families with middle-class (or higher) incomes too.
Our study provides an important piece of the puzzle and a baseline for future analysis. But we need more data to better understand precarious employment and its unequal impacts, and to be able to monitor workers’ experiences in today’s rapidly changing labour market.
That doesn’t mean action can or should wait. The burden of precarious work falls more heavily on racialized and immigrant communities, Indigenous peoples, women and lower-income groups—compounding long-standing systemic and intersecting inequalities in the province.
The BC government has the power to improve the lives of precarious workers and their families right away. It’s crucial to modernize workplace rights and protections and to enforce them proactively so that those who don’t have “standard” jobs aren’t left behind. This starts with extending basic workplace protections like minimum wage and workers compensation to gig workers but doesn’t end there. Expanding access to benefits and paid time off, addressing unpaid care work and the lack of access to child care and bringing in strong pay equity legislation are additional ways to reduce precarity in BC.
For thousands of workers stuck in precarious jobs, the long-promised provincial precarious work strategy can’t come soon enough.
This piece was originally published in the Vancouver Sun.