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What does precarious employment really look like?

August 31, 2018 by Pacinthe Mattar

Animated image of a woman on a unicycle juggling a clock phone and credit card in a blue and yellow office
Illustrations by Made By Emblem

These days, work isn’t always stable or secure. But you might be surprised to learn who’s getting left behind in today’s labour market

A Google search on “precarious work” returns more than 11 million results. Clearly, this is an issue on a lot of people’s minds. But one thing that’s getting lost in the conversation around this type of employment is who, exactly, is losing out when job security disappears. And the answer might surprise you.

There’s no one definition of precarious employment, says Stephanie Procyk, the manager of research, public policy and evaluation at United Way Greater Toronto. But there’s no getting around the reality that work is becoming more defined by insecurity, uncertainty and a lack of control.

Precarious work doesn’t affect all people the same way. In a 2018 report, Procyk and her co-authors looked at who gained job security over time between 2011 and 2017 and who got left behind. “The people more often in precarious employment tend to be women, people who are racialized, and people without university degrees,” she says. “The troubling thing with our findings is the people who gained access to job security are the people who are already at the top—white women and white men with university degrees, and racialized men with university degrees.”

Did you catch that? While you might expect that people without university degrees are more likely to experience precarious work, racialized women with university degrees did, too. And that was true even when the job market was getting better.

Animated illustration of a hand dragging a CV document into the body of an email addressed to potential employers

Research also shows there’s no real safe harbour. “One of the new elements in precarious employment is that it has really become [common] throughout all incomes, throughout all sectors, throughout all industries,” says Procyk. So those jobs that used to be stable—like journalism, academia and nursing—are now increasingly precarious.

What happens when accepting your dream job means forgoing benefits, permanence and, in some cases, a living wage? We spoke to three women who are facing exactly that situation. Here’s what they have to say.

“I’m saving for the sake of saving because I’m afraid of not having any money.”

Celeste Lanz (who asked us not to use her real name) is 39, has a Ph.D. in human geography and teaches social sciences and humanities courses at multiple Toronto universities. At one, she has a part-time contract putting together an online curriculum for adult learners, a position she’s held for about three years. She’s not allowed to work more than 24 hours a week, and the contract is only valid for six months at a time. She’s always anxious about whether her contract will be renewed. “I never count my chickens until I can log back into the system,” she says.

Lanz is also a sessional lecturer at another institution, which means she has to re-apply for her jobs every semester. “That’s a constant, always wondering if you have a job,” she says. “You don’t know if the program will offer your courses again, or whether they will hire you to teach the course you taught last year.”

While she says she has been able to adapt to the instability, there has been a cost. “It really gets to me mentally. I’ve been living this life for so long that some of this has become normal.” She copes by saving religiously: “You just sock away as much as you can.”

Lanz doesn’t feel like she can really think about what her future looks like—but she also never stops worrying. “It’s hard to plan long-term. You’re definitely not buying a house in Toronto,” she says, laughing. “But can you afford to have kids? I don’t know. I keep socking away all this money in a savings account, but for what? I’m not planning to buy a house. I’m saving the money for the sake of saving money because I’m afraid of not having any money.”

“Once upon a time, people fought for a weekend. Now, with freelance gigs, it’s like, ‘what is a weekend?’”

Angelyn Francis was thrilled when she landed a full-time staff job at a major national magazine in April 2017. It was a stable job with benefits in a field she felt passionately about. But the joy was short lived. Just over a year later, like many of her peers, she was laid off. It marked the second time in two years that she had been laid off from a job in journalism: her first job after earning an undergraduate degree had lasted just under a year.

Animated hand drags papers titled benefits, dental plan, weekends dragged to the garbage

Francis, 23, says her experience is not unusual in her industry. “It’s a very volatile and unstable field at the moment.” She has changed gears into freelance work, relying on her skills in videography, event photography and video editing, which she says will support her at least through the summer. But the situation is not ideal. “Once upon a time, people fought for a weekend,” she says. “And now, with the freelance gigs, it’s like, ‘What is a weekend?’”

While she does feel like she’s young enough to weather the instability for now, she’s not sure it’ll stay that way. “I’d like to continue in the field that I’m enjoying because I love telling people’s stories,” she says. “But I’m not sure that I will be in 10 years.”

“I cannot rely on this work for retirement.”

Dolly Uppal, a translator and interpreter who lives in Mississauga, sees freelance work as a fact of life. “Most interpreters are freelance and work with a few different companies,” she says.

For Uppal, 62, that means translating audio recordings, documents and speech from Hindi, Punjabi or Urdu into English for courts, insurance companies and medical clinics, among others.

But while there are upsides to this style of work—she helps care for her grandchildren, so the flexible schedule is a plus—the challenges can’t be overstated.

“The work is inconsistent,” she says. “Sometimes the assignments we get are seasonal, so there are slow periods.” And it’s not just about the amount of work that’s available from week to week or month to month. It’s also about who’s giving it to her. “I am dependent on my relationship with the people at the various companies I work with. If they don’t like me, they won’t give me assignments. And if there is turnover with staff, I have to rebuild relationships. I often find myself asking for work by calling various companies every week during the slow times to ensure I can meet my expenses.”

The money is good during busy times, when the work is consistently flowing in. But “it takes more work to keep it up,” she says. And that makes it hard to save. “I’m sure I could do a better job of managing myself, but being freelance doesn’t help [with] saving. You don’t know if this month you’ll get enough assignments to cover your expenses, so saving becomes secondary.”

“I like that I can choose what I will do,” she says. “But I cannot rely on this work for retirement. My home is my retirement money.”

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