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Precarious work metastasizing through multiple sectors of the economy

Where crappy, low-paying work was once the domain of students and those entering the job market, today those McJobs are an increasing part of many people’s working lives. Good jobs are becoming a thing of the past, as even the latest, worsening employment figures indicate.

While such jobs are increasingly hard to come by, the low-wage workforce in Ontario grew by more than 90 per cent over the past 20 years, vastly outstripping the 30 per cent growth in total employment. Precarious work is increasingly the norm, and that doesn’t just apply to the hospitality and retail sectors. More than a fifth of people in professional fields now find themselves working precariously, according to a new study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

No Safe Harbour: Precarious Work and Economic Insecurity Among Skilled Professionals in Canada shows professionals across the country are not immune to the hallmarks of precarious work: no steady income, no pension, no benefits, no sick pay.

“We tend to think of precarious work as something that happens in low-wage, low-skill jobs, but the findings from this national survey suggest that there is no safe harbour. Even highly educated professionals are experiencing economic insecurity and unstable working conditions,” says Ricardo Tranjan, a CCPA-Ontario senior researcher.

Even full-time work isn’t a buffer: 26 per cent of precarious professionals work full-time, though most go contract-to-contract (37 per cent) or work part-time (34 per cent). The majority (60 per cent) of precarious professionals don’t have a pension plan or RRSP, nor do they get sick pay.

The report found precarious professionals in both the private (40 per cent) and public (30 per cent) sector. Precarious professionals are in all professions, but they’re concentrated in three occupational categories: education (28 per cent), health care (18 per cent), and business, finance and administration (19 per cent). The majority of precarious professionals are women (60 per cent) and there is a higher incidence among professionals aged 55 and up.

Given the encroachment of automation, which first hollowed out factory and resource sector work, on service and professional jobs, we can expect more Canadians to find themselves with precarious employment.

While professional jobs are at risk, as always it is the lower end of the pay scale where people are hurt the most.

Very much indicative of the problem is the increase in the number of workers earning minimum wage.

Not only do these jobs pay poorly – often not enough to cover basic living expenses – those in them are some of the most exploited and vulnerable workers. There are few, if any benefits. No sick days or leave provisions. Lack full-time or even steady hours.

In fact, unpredictable hours are the norm for most minimum wage workers (six in 10) and for many workers earning between the minimum wage and $15 an hour in 2014 (four in 10). The lower the pay, the more likely an Ontario worker is to forced to take unpaid time off if needed: only 16.8 per cent of minimum wage earners who were absent got paid time off in 2014 and only 24.9 per cent of workers earning $11-$15 got paid time off. In sharp contrast, the majority (56.8 per cent) of Ontario workers earning more than $15 an hour got paid during their absence.

Not only are a growing number of jobs paying less, full-time work is harder to come by. More Ontarians are left to scramble for multiple part-time and contract jobs, none of which provide security. A bigger share of employees in Ontario work less than 40 hours a week today than was the case in 1997: this share grew by 19 per cent, to 50.5 per cent in 2014 from 42.5 per cent in 1997. In other words, one out of two workers in Ontario don’t have a 40-hour-a-week job.

The age of workers receiving minimum wage has increased over the last couple of decades. This dispels the myth that minimum wage earners are teenagers who are working for the latest smart phone or other non-necessity. In reality, 66 per cent of minimum wage workers are older than 20 and only 34 per cent are teens. In other words, two out of every three of such wage earners are adults trying to make ends meet on a minimum wage that keeps a full-time, full-year worker below the poverty line.

Employment growth in trade (retail and wholesale), business services (which includes temporary agencies, cleaning, and security services), and accommodation and food services outpaced overall Ontario employment growth. All of these industries have median wages that are far below the median for all workers. In short, a rising share of Ontario workers are in low-wage work. These workers are more likely than higher-wage employees to have variable hours where their schedule and pay is unpredictable, the CCPA reports.

There’s also a correlation between declining private sector unionization levels and falling incomes and standards.

Unionization is a divisive issue. Unions have a mostly negative image, even as the numbers of unionized workers continue to drop in the private sector, to 14 per cent in 2014 versus 19 per cent in 1997. Private sector labour disputes of the past are, for the most part, things of the past: the large strikes of many decades ago, and even the regular action in the auto industry, have gone the way of the dodo. That’s partly due to the losses in the traditional large industries, coupled with decades of assault on unions and workers led by proponents of globalization.

Today, unions are most associated with the public sector, where rates have held steady around 70 per cent.

Government workers, however, are typically well compensated, have copious benefits, overgenerous pensions and a long list of perqs, almost none of which exist in the private sector, and not at all in the case of the most precarious jobs. The seemingly endless demands of the already over-entitled civil servants has not garnered the unions any fans among the majority on the hook for the ever-growing tab.

It’s the growing number of workers in crappy jobs that could do with unions fulfilling their roles from the early part of last century. Ironically, those doing just fine in government have thus far shown no inclination to stem the assault on the middle and working classes.

Instead, watch for more gleeful announcements of McJobs coming to a town near you.

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