Skip to content

Study finds precarious employment pervasive in B.C. job market

CCPA, SFU 'precarity' survey documents erosion of standard job numbers, benefits in the province
Uber driver servicing Vancouver International Airport

It’s a precarious work world out there, and the findings of a study released today [April 13] show that it is more precarious in B.C. than many residents and businesses might have assumed.

But Is It a Good Job? Understanding Employment Precarity in B.C. is based on a survey of more than 3,000 workers aged 25 to 65 conducted in late 2019.

It provides a pre-pandemic snapshot of the province’s labour market and underscores the continued hollowing-out of extended health coverage, pensions, worker rights and other benefits amassed in North America’s post-Second World War labour market.

The report, a partnership between Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), was released a day after the provincial government released its What We Heard collection of feedback on gig work in B.C. Public engagement for that feedback began in the fall of 2022. It included an online survey, along with roundtables and meetings with workers, platform companies, labour and business organizations, academics and researchers.

Kendra Strauss, director of SFU’s labour studies program and a co-author of the precarity report, said the release of the provincial government’s report was “a bit of a surprise to me,” but she added that it provided an opportunity to make some linkages and comparisons between the two, one of which is the overarching theme of “the trade-off between flexibility and security” for workers.

Precarious work as defined in the SFU-CCPA study includes such pursuits as driving for Uber and other contract work that offers workers job flexibility but does not provide the job security and benefits of a “standard job” – a permanent full-time position that comes with at least some benefits.

Its “employment precarity index” includes a wide range of job characteristics and based on workers’ employment experiences placed them in one of four categories: secure, stable, vulnerable and precarious.

The index includes measurements of employment quality and security, income variability, scheduling uncertainty and access to employer-provided benefits.

Based on their answers, respondents were assigned a score of between zero and 100, which slotted them into one of the index’s four categories.

Strauss said that one of the biggest surprises in the SFU-CCPA study was that just under half of all the workers surveyed in the report “have what we think of as a typical standard job. So, 51 per cent of the workers [surveyed] were not in a full-time permanent job with access to at least some benefits. … This research really highlighted that the old idea of a standard job just maybe isn’t true anymore and that more people are experiencing aspects of employment insecurity than we realized.”

The precarious status of employers was not factored into the study, but Strauss pointed out that globalization, international competition and other factors have changed the employment equation significantly.

She added, however, that “some of the sectors and employers that are most likely to hire workers under precarious conditions are also some of the most profitable corporations. So, I don’t think we can assume that precarity is the result of employers needing to stay in business. It is also the pursuit for profits, where holding labour costs down is one of the biggest incentives for employers.”

Among the precarity report’s highlighted findings:

•37 per cent of survey respondents had precarious jobs and only 18 per cent were in secure jobs;

•Only 49 per cent of B.C. workers surveyed had standard jobs;

•Women, workers aged 25 to 34 and recent immigrants were less likely to have a standard job;

•Many workers in standard jobs did not have access to important workplace benefits, such as extended health coverage (15 per cent) or retirement benefits (30 per cent);

•Not all precarious jobs were associated with low employment incomes; 34 per cent had middle incomes and 18 per cent had higher incomes;

•55 per cent of recent immigrants were in precarious jobs, the highest proportion of any group in our survey; and

•Secure jobs were slightly less common in northern B.C. and the Interior than in Metro Vancouver and on Vancouver Island.

Strauss said specific actions by governments, employers and employees could help reduce the increasingly precarious state of the job market.

Policies such as B.C.’s five paid sick days legislation introduced in May 2021, she said, make a significant difference for workers. Meanwhile, employers, especially in a tight labour market, should be thinking about how to improve job quality and security to increase employee retention.

Workers, Strauss said, need to collectively advocate for job market improvements and push for better conditions, benefits and the recognition of credentials earned in different countries or regions.

Meanwhile, the provincial government’s What We Heard report on gig work released on April 11 found overall that workers value gig work’s flexibility but have concerns about earnings that are often low and unpredictable and overhead costs for such things as fuel. They also raised concerns about transparency of how and what they are paid for assignments and being terminated or deactivated from a platform for no apparent reason. The companies that provide those assignments through digital platforms indicated they support guarantees of minimum wages and other improved working conditions for gig workers if the flexibility of gig worker employment is maintained.

[email protected]