Working Precariously: The New Normal?

2023, Economy, Equity + Justice, Future of Work, Make a Difference for B.C.

 The rise of “gig work” through apps like Uber and Skip the Dishes sparked debate about precarious work and what defines a “good job.” A groundbreaking report released in April from the new Understanding Precarity in BC (UP-BC) project shows that precarious work is much more common than people might think in B.C. And it’s not just Uber or Skip the Dishes that are creating precarious jobs – many more traditional jobs have become precarious too.

Report authors Iglika Ivanova and Dr. Kendra Strauss sat down for a conversation about precarious employment and its unequal impacts on workers, families and communities in our province. What precarious employment is, how widespread it is, and why it urgently needs to be addressed. 

Community-based researchers and advocates worked closely with those most affected by precarity. We learned more about the inspiring work that is already happening locally to reduce precarity and what else could have been done to make every job a good job.

This conversation drew on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Thu, 01 Jun 2023

Online event


Shannon Daub

Shannon Daub is Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC Office — a research institute focused on social, economic, racial and environmental justice. Her work mixes her expertise in both research and communication. Shannon's research interests include social movements, framing, environmental communication and democratic capacity. She co-directs the Corporate Mapping Project with Bill Carroll at the University of Victoria. The project is investigating the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry in Canada, and is jointly led by UVic, the CCPA's BC and Saskatchewan offices and the Alberta-based Parkland Institute.


Iglika Ivanova

Iglika Ivanova is a Senior Economist and the Public Interest Researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office. Her research explores the potential for public policy to build a more just, inclusive, and sustainable economy. She has authored and co-authored a number of reports and policy briefs on issues of poverty, economic insecurity, income and gender inequalities, public finance and labour market shifts toward more precarious work. Iglika is also a high-profile media commentator on key social and economic challenges facing British Columbia.

Dr. Kendra Strauss

Kendra is a labour geographer and feminist political economist with teaching and research interests in the areas of labour and regulation, social reproduction, migration, precarious employment and urbanization. Her research looks at the ways that categories of social difference shape how wage labour and unpaid work are valued and regulated, and what counts as labour. Kendra is currently the Director of the Labour Studies Program at SFU and the SFU Morgan Centre for Labour Research, and a Professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology.

Iglika Ivanova and Dr. Kendra Strauss are the authors of the recent study But is it a Good Job? Understanding Employment Precarity in BC. Together, they co-Direct the Understanding Precarity in BC (UP-BC) Project, a six-year research and public engagement initiative investigating precarious work and multi-dimensional precarity in BC. 

Pamela Charron

Pamela (she/her) has been a part of the hospitality/restaurant sector for 15 years. With her experience and background in Gender Studies, she knows that workers often face unfair employment and working conditions. She joined the Worker Solidarity Network over 4 years ago because all workers deserve decent work and justice was something to fight for. Her passion is to build worker power through the lens of peer-to-peer support, mutual aid, and taking collective action in solidarity against bad bosses.

Cenen Bagon

Cenen Bagon is a long-time activist in the Filipino community and in the migrant justice, labour and women’s movements. In her advocacy work, she has participated in the discussions and assisted in research activities to produce government briefs for the advancement of the rights and equality of migrants and marginalized workers, women and girls. She is a steering committee member of the Vancouver Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers Rights (CDWCR) since its formation in 1992, and an active member of the BC Employment Standards Coalition (BCESC) and the Migrant Rights Network Canada.

Dr. Maureen Kihika

Maureen Kihika is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology and the Labour Studies program at Simon Fraser University. She is a race and labour scholar with teaching and research interests in the global political economy, migration, race, and labour/work. Maureen’s work analyses how race, gender and other intersecting categories of social difference shape the experiences of Black workers and their understandings of Blackness. Currently, her research focuses on the work-life experiences of Black millennial youth in North America. Maureen is also a member of the Canadian Sociological Association where she sits on the sub-committee for equity issues.


Event summary

By: Steff Hui Ci Ling, Graduate Student, SFU Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Shannon Daub moderated an insightful conversation with Iglika Ivanova and Dr. Kendra Strauss, the authors of the recent study But is it a Good Job? Understanding Employment Precarity in BC, alongside Pamela Charron, Cenen Bagon, and Dr. Maureen Kihika. Together, they considered precarious employment in British Columbia.

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When I was an art student, my friends were telling me about a word that was being thrown around a lot in the sculpture course they were all taking. I guess a lot of the work in their class that semester intentionally looked like it was about to fall over and it was often described as “precarious.” Now that I’m studying labour sociology, I would also use that same word to describe the design of capitalist economies. 

The Understanding Precarity in BC Project and SFU Public Square recently hosted the webinar “Working Precariously: The New Normal?” which discussed the newly published report But is it a good job? Understanding employment precarity in BC. The event included an introductory presentation of the report’s main findings from its authors Iglika Ivanova and Dr. Kendra Strauss, followed by a discussion with Pamela Charon (Workers’ Solidarity Network), Cenen Bagon (Vancouver Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers Rights) and Dr. Maureen Kihika (SFU Labour Studies).  

One of the many insights gleaned from listening to the speakers animate this research on precarious employment in B.C. is that although everybody needs access to healthcare and social protection, the latter is offered to approximately half the workforce and is distributed in ways that fall along classed, racialized and gendered lines. Additionally, the report interrogates whether access to secure working conditions, social security, and human rights should be contingent on a rarified and increasingly precarious “standard job.” 

The report pulls from a survey designed by Ivanova and Strauss which discovered that in the pre-pandemic labour market, about half of the province’s workforce was employed precariously. The survey took place in the late fall of 2019 and was completed by 3,000 workers between the ages of 25 and 65 from across British Columbia. The report states that precarity is hard to define, but this is not for a lack of effort or precision. Following the webinar and reflecting on the range of the evening’s speakers, precarity can be understood as something that cannot be captured by a single report and it cannot comprehensively be defined by economists and researchers.

However, Strauss emphasized that “precarity is racial capitalist because it impacts Black, Indigenous and racialized workers in greater proportion to non-racialized, status-secure workers.” Ivanova followed by identifying precarity as highly concentrated among recent immigrants, as “more than half of recent immigrants (less than 10 years in Canada) were in precarious jobs (55%) – the highest proportion of any group in our surveys.” 

Precarity varies from workforce to workforce, so the definitions that workers articulate will be informed by the social, political, and geographic specificity of their respective workplaces and sectors. The evening’s speakers spoke in solidarity with food service workers, migrant domestic and care workers, and Black nurses in the province, who have expressed shared and distinct conditions of precarity at work.

Pamela Charron highlighted key findings from the report, Can’t Stand the Heat? Get Out of the Kitchen!, which was recently published by the Workers’ Solidarity Network. This report examined how restaurant workers were impacted by extreme heat and wildfires, and how severe weather events exacerbated their  health and safety risks. According to food service workers, precarity may comprise a different suite of conditions from that of a migrant careworker, who face fear of reprisal because of loss of immigration status. Although their experiences and these precarious conditions may stem from a common system of networked exploitation, state failures, and settler-colonial capitalist expansionism, the experiences of precarity are distinct from industry to industry.

During the webinar, Cenon Bagon of the Vancouver Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers’ Rights considered the question “What does precarity look like on the ground in migrant communities?” The audience learned that migrant care work is done by temporary foreign and care workers, mostly women from developing countries, and “care work is a non-standard job.” For Bagon, migrant workers justice also entails  status-upon-arrival and emphasizes that “those who work, deserve to stay.” 

Another panelist, Dr. Maureen Kihika, shared her research, which focuses on registered nurses and Black immigrant youth, and how Black identities intersect with precarity. In the case of Black immigrant caregivers, it is mostly women working in the public health sector as support persons, care aids and registered nurses. Kihika remarked that in her research, workers and community members have shared how they have been assigned “sicker” patients, more difficult or challenging work, and are given irregular work schedules as auxiliary care workers. Here, we can see how even standard employment with a public sector job can also be embedded with precarious elements, as revealed when researchers talk to women, racialized, immigrant workers. 

A conventional understanding of what constitutes a “good job” has largely been defined by a specific historical context: the postwar era, when many workers had one or two full-time jobs with employers that provided benefits such as health insurance, sick leave, vacation pay, etc. Additionally, the report states that these jobs were more than likely to be unionized. 

The report states that “Canada’s system of workplace rights and protections — including access to workers’ compensation, employment insurance and parental leave, pensions, extended health coverage, paid sick time, etc — is still largely designed around the historically white and male breadwinner model of the ‘standard job’ or ‘standard employment relationship.’” According to the report, just under half of the survey workers had standard jobs. These jobs are concentrated in Metro Vancouver and were less likely to be held by women, Indigenous, Black and racialized and recently immigrated workers. 

Although access to social security is perceived to be hinged on a “standard job”, the report indicates that precarity is encroaching on the standard employment relationship. “Even workers with standard jobs may experience aspects of precarity not captured by the definitions of standard versus non-standard employment, such as unpredictable scheduling, low pay or lack of access to an extended health care plan.” 

If we project the economic trends that the report captures, those in “standard jobs” will soon have their own suite of precarious conditions to add to an already diverse understanding of what precarious work looks like. Speaking optimistically, perhaps there will be a  mobilization of labour solidarities between sectors of standard and non-standard types of workers, but for now, Iglika Ivanova and Kendra Strauss are calling for a “societal revaluing of care work” and a “decoupling of some of the benefits that are currently associated with employment, such as disability insurance and health benefits.” 

At the event, Strauss put forward a few immediate and concrete strategies for policy makers, labour organizers, and researchers can undertake while we work towards broader societal transformation. These strategies include enabling sectoral bargaining for those who have not historically had access to unions, implementing stronger pay equity legislation, and furthering research on precarious employment as a lever for conversations to design effective solutions. In addition, the report’s conclusions recommend expanding access to benefits and addressing unpaid child care and care work, reflecting much of what was focused on throughout the evening’s panel.

Ultimately, there is no comparing states of precariousness between a sculpture that is about to fall over in an art class and labour economies that are designed to exponentially withhold social necessities to the majority of its workforce. This report and the subsequent webinar identify how the overall quality of jobs in B.C. –  be it private, public, freelance, temporary, or migrant – has depreciated in ways that cannot be addressed solely through addressing the standard employment relationship. 

As echoed by the speakers at this event – climate disaster, border states, and environmental racism must be viewed as labour issues, rather than adjacent to them.

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