In praise of 'precarious' work

Why lament the rise of the self-employed and part-timers? It's good for the workers, and for Canada.


(Photo: Toby Talbot/AP)

I’ve been feeling a bit precarious lately.

No, I’m not dangling my legs over the railing at Niagara Falls. Or doing anything foolish on Vancouver’s Capilano Suspension Bridge. Rather, I’m self-employed. And according to a growing hue and cry, that puts me in a precarious situation.

In August, the Law Commission of Ontario released Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Work, a study motivated by “the need to reduce precarious work.” A follow-up is due in 2013. The Canadian Auto Workers last year launched a national campaign titled: “Precarious Work Affects Us All!” with the same goal. Plus there’s a general sense that growth in self-employment and part-time work is something we all should be lamenting. Of course, simply calling the phenomenon “precarious” adds an aura of impending doom.

So what is precarious work? According to a Law Commission background paper, you’re precarious if you meet any three of four markers: no union, no pension, you work at a small firm (or for yourself) and/or earn a wage less than 1.5 times the minimum. A CAW conference last year claimed 40% of the workforce is precarious. The Law Commission figures 22%. Regardless, it’s a big and growing chunk of the labour market. Top precarious jobs include retail or restaurant staff; freelance or contract office temps; and temporary foreign workers in agriculture.

Yet most precarious work is done entirely by choice. Only a quarter of part-time workers in Canada would rather be working full-time. School, personal preference and child-care responsibilities dominate reasons for working less than full time, according to Statistics Canada. Self-employment is similarly enjoying gains, largely because it allows former wage slaves to become free agents. Even migrant workers are here by choice.

Nonetheless, precariousness is getting a reputation as a trend that must be stopped via more regulation. Some academics and left-wing think-tanks absurdly demand self-employed workers be given overtime and vacation rights just like permanent employees. The Law Commission even suggests this growing legion of precarious workers is on the verge of full-blown class consciousness, preciously calling them the “precariat.”

With an image of the Bastille being stormed by a rabble of freelance writers, part-time cooks and itinerant Caribbean fruit pickers in mind, perhaps it’s relevant to consider the current situation in Europe, where generations of abundant labour regulation have robbed much of the Continent of employment flexibility—sorry, precarious work.

Countries such as Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain all share common characteristics of strict rules regarding layoffs and contracting out—exactly the sort of thing precarious worriers favour here. All four counties are also economic basket cases. While it’s a stretch to blame all their problems on labour-market rigidity, a deliberate lack of employment flexibility has certainly made it more difficult for them to adjust to changing circumstances.

The more you try to stamp out precarious jobs, the more damage you do to the jobs market. The World Bank observed last year that adding new employment-protection laws inevitably favours existing job holders over new entrants and “lower[s] employment rates for disadvantaged worker groups, especially youth.” As you try to eliminate precarious jobs through red tape, employers come to fear the burden of new permanent employees. That’s why unemployment lasts three times longer in highly regulated economies, compared to those with more precarity.

Certainly the rise of temporary, part-time and contract employment has benefited employers by improving their ability to scale up or down quickly. But the trend marks an advantage for workers as well, who gain more control over their work-life relationships. And it has allowed the Canadian economy to adapt quickly to a devastating international financial crisis. Working precariously isn’t nearly as dangerous as it sounds. Unless, of course, you happen to be a freelance lion tamer.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a writer specializing in economic issues