Yesterday, at a full-day symposium with McMaster University and the Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) research group, United Way Toronto launched the ground-breaking It’s More than Poverty report. Representatives from the private sector, labour, government and non-profit organizations gathered to discuss the growth of precarious jobs—those without benefits and those with uncertain futures.
Confirming the anecdotes
This new report, based on a specially commissioned survey of over 4,000 respondents, confirms what our communities and member agencies knew, anecdotally, five years ago: that precarious work has grown in prevalence; that it impacts workers’ well-being; and that it is more prevalent among recent immigrants and people from racialized groups. The data also shows that the impacts of precarious work are more severe for people with low income, which remains a big concern for all of us. Additionally, we found that precarious work has spread—into all sectors, across the entire GTA and Hamilton region, and among all demographic groups and all income groups.
On some indicators, middle-income earners in insecure employment were even experiencing more challenges than low-income earners in secure employment.
The report’s counterintuitive findings surprised us, and others. Some of the reaction focused on the issue of choice, in response to the finding that being in precarious work was affecting middle-income individuals and families. Could people earning middle incomes—between $50,000 and $100,000 a year—really be precarious? Wasn’t the kind of work that these earners were doing, like knowledge jobs at colleges and universities, or freelance design and other creative jobs, something they chose to do? Didn’t many of these workers live in households where one partner had a secure job and the other could afford to work on short-term contracts (and did so as part of a chosen lifestyle)?
The answer is split: yes, middle-income jobs can be precarious; and, no, it’s not all about choice. Choice is a complicated issue. We know that many in Toronto cannot choose the opportunities available to them. Indeed, over half of survey respondents employed in insecure work said that they would prefer more secure work. Our data also showed that, if the survey respondent was in a precarious job, their partner was more likely to be in a precarious job, too.
But the real issue for all workers in precarious jobs, whether they choose these jobs or not, is that the conditions in which they are working are harmfully affecting not just the workers, but also their families and their communities. Our labour market is no longer creating enough jobs that are pathways to income and employment security.
Continuing the conversation
As was so energetically discussed yesterday, we (as a society) got here one decision at a time. So the good news is that vulnerability and insecurity are not inevitable: we can escape this growing trend, decision by decision. It will take time, it will take clear ideas on what to do, and it will take a widespread coalition to make the necessary policy and social change, but it is not impossible. Our task, now, is to make this change happen.