Getting by is getting harder for those in “casual” jobs

August 12, 2008

Many experts are puzzling over a paradox in BC’s economy — why have years of solid growth and low unemployment failed to translate into improved earnings for those in lower end jobs? One piece of the puzzle can be found in the growth in casual work. “Casual” means you have a job but no job security — working without a contract or with one that lasts a very short time (whereas people with permanent jobs expect ongoing employment, barring unforeseen circumstances like layoffs).

The likelihood of being in casual employment has increased more in BC, compared to the rest of Canada — despite the buoyant economic conditions in the province. In other words, even though a strong economy is growing the pool of available jobs, the quality of those jobs is deteriorating.

Casual (or temporary) employment often gets mixed up in the debate about “flexibility.” For some workers, such as professional consultants, the greater flexibility afforded by temporary work can be both desirable and well-paid. But for most people, the flexibility that comes with temporary work is good for the employer and costly for the employee — costly in terms of personal and family stress, and financial hardship.

Casual workers typically have lower quality jobs and fewer benefits such as holiday pay, extended health coverage or pensions. They usually also have lower pay. Casual jobs are found across both the private and public sectors, particularly in teaching and child care/home support occupations, as well as sales and services, construction trades, and occupations in primary industry.

In a survey of casual workers we undertook in Vancouver and Prince George, we found that most people do not choose temporary work. In fact, 80% said they are actively seeking permanent jobs.

The overwhelming picture that emerges from our research is of the double bind in which financial and time constraints affect all aspects of casual workers’ lives and their ability to balance work and family obligations. This is especially true for parents, but extends to many others as well. There is a constant need for more income, yet this is continually undermined by irregular hours, shift work, short call-ins, minimal notice of work schedules, and low pay.

Comments by respondents in our survey reflect the stresses of being trapped in involuntary casual work:
“I constantly have to move my kids to different care-givers.”
“I go to bed early in case I get an early call; plans are always tentative.”
“I have missed many family events. There is a lot of stress and tension.”

Recent provincial policy changes have contributed to the growth in casual work. For example, privatization and contracting out in crown corporations, hospitals and care facilities reduced the stock of public sector jobs — jobs that offered a measure of security and decent pay.

Other policy changes have deregulated the labour market to a significant degree, making work life tougher and undermining the economic security of vulnerable workers in temporary, part-time and low-wage jobs.

For example, a series of changes to the Employment Standards Act (ESA) weakened the already very basic minimums employers had to follow. These include: reducing the minimum shift from four hours to two; dropping the requirement that employers give 24 hours notice of shift changes; excluding whole groups of workers from the ESA altogether (such as those employed in agriculture and truck drivers; and requiring workers whose employment rights are violated to confront their employer using a “self-help kit” instead of direct enforcement by the Employment Standards Branch. As a result, vulnerable workers are left to fend largely for themselves.

It is time the provincial government recognized its responsibility to make sure more British Columbians share in the good times. In addition to reversing the policies listed above, the province should enhance the economic security of workers in the lower end of the labour market by:

  • Immediately increasing the minimum wage to $10 and indexing it to inflation;
  • Expanding the Employment Standards Act so that it covers all workers, including independent contract workers and casual workers;
  • Establishing reasonable minimum shifts and contract lengths and strengthening rules for termination/dismissal, to ensure work provides people with a basic level of security and predictability;
  • Removing barriers to unionization;
  • Enhancing child care subsidies and lowering the income threshold at which parents become eligible.

BC is often promoted as “the best place to invest.” But if it also to be “the best place to live and work,” the provincial government must rethink its approach.

Fiona MacPhail and Paul Bowles are Professors of Economics at the University of Northern BC, and co-authors of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study Improving the Economic Security of Casual Workers in BC.