CAALL — Canadian Association of Administrators of Labour Legislation

Vulnerable Workers in Canada

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Presentation to FPT Ministers, March 17th, 2006 — By Ron Saunders
Director, Work Network Canadian Policy Research Networks


  • About CPRN
  • The Vulnerable Workers Project
  • Aspects of vulnerability in the labour market
  • Globalization, risk, and policy choice
  • Growth in non-standard work
  • Mapping the dimensions of vulnerability
    • Low pay
    • Access to rights, benefits, supports

About CPRN

  • An independent, non-profit, policy research think tank
  • Mission: "to create knowledge and lead public debate on social and economic issues important to Canadians"
  • Four Networks: Family, Health, Work, Public Involvement

The Vulnerable Workers Project: Goals

  • To explore the sources of vulnerability
  • To document the circumstances of vulnerable workers
  • To identify policies and practices to enable vulnerable workers to realize their potential:
    • for their own personal development
    • to contribute to our economy and society
  • To stimulate change in public policies and in workplace practices

The Vulnerable Workers Project: Studies

  • Defining Vulnerability in the Labour Market (2003)
  • Non-standard Work and Economic Vulnerability (2005)
  • Towards Enhancing the Employment Conditions of Vulnerable Workers: A Public Policy Perspective (2005)
  • Does a Rising Tide Lift All Boats? Low-Paid Workers in Canada (2005)
  • Lifting the Boats: Policies to Make Work Pay (2005)
  • New Approaches in Achieving Compliance with Statutory Employment Standards (with IPAC) (2005)
  • Risk and Opportunity: Creating Options for Vulnerable Workers (2006)

Labour market vulnerability: The broad concept

  • Workers whose participation in labour market leaves their well-being at risk.
  • In other words, those who find it difficult to access work that provides a decent income and/or working conditions that meet societal norms.
  • Related to, but not synonymous with, growth of non-standard work.

Aspects of vulnerability in the labour market

  • Persistently low pay
  • Persistent unemployment or underemployment
  • Poor access to employment rights, benefits, supports, learning opportunities
  • Lack of access to collective representation

What we would like to achieve

  • Decent pay (wage plus any income supplement surpasses individual Low Income Cutoff)
  • Decent working conditions (access to basic protections)
  • Broad access to benefits and supports that are important to well-being
  • Opportunities to 'move up'

Globalization, risk, and policy choice

  • Greater mobility of capital => greater emphasis on economic efficiency and flexibility. But governments and employers still have choices to make.
  • Risk is being transferred from employers to employees.
  • Are we distributing risk in a way that helps us realize our social and economic objectives?
  • What policy platforms and instruments can be used to improve outcomes?

Growth of non-standard work

  • Standard employment: full-time employee, indefinite duration, one employer
  • Gradual increase in share of non-standard work over last 25-30 years; now almost 40%
  • Own-account self-employment: 6% in 1976; 10% in 2000.
  • Reasons for growth: new technologies; globalization; business need for flexibility; costs of providing benefits; some workers seeking work/family balance or greater independence

Mapping the dimensions of vulnerability

Low pay

  • 1/6 of full-time workers earned under $10/hour in 2000 (same as 1980).
  • Higher incidence of low pay for women, young people, less-educated, recent immigrants.
  • Median wages stagnant 1981-2004 (falling for new hires), yet educational attainment has risen.
  • 30% of low-paid live in low-income households.
  • Half of low-paid workers in 1996 had not moved up five years later.
  • Non-standard workers are paid less than full-time, permanent workers.
  • At least 1/4 of part-time workers prefer full-time work.

Poor access to rights, benefits, supports

  • Non-standard and low-paid workers have little access to extended medical coverage or employer pension plan.
  • Low-paid workers unlikely to receive employer- sponsored training or government help to upgrade skills.
  • Less than half of unemployed benefit from EI.
  • Self-employed not covered by laws that set minimum standards of employment. Some regular employees do not benefit from the laws because of lack of compliance.
  • 1/6 Canadians are unable to afford decent housing.
  • Affordable child care is scarce in most provinces.

Poor access to collective representation

  • Unionization rate for jobs earning less than $10/hr was 10% in 2004 (down from 15% in 1981).
  • For jobs earning $10+ per hour, unionization rate was 37% in 2004 (44% in 1981).

Source: Morissette and Picot 2005

Mapping vulnerability: conclusions

'Knowledge economy' is leaving many working people behind.

  • Despite rising levels of educational attainment, share of work that is low-paid is unchanged since 1980.
  • Growth in non-standard work has weakened access to employment rights and benefits.
  • With government cutbacks to social assistance, unemployment insurance, and skills upgrading programs in the 1990s, many of those left behind are not well-positioned to bounce back.

Key Sources

Chung, L. 2004. "Low-Paid Workers: How Many Live in Low-Income Families?" Perspectives on Labour and Income, 16(4), 23-32.

Galarneau, D. 2005. "Earnings of Temporary versus Permanent Employees." Perspectives on Labour and Income, 6(1), 5-18.

Janz, T. 2004. "Low-paid Employment and Moving Up: A Closer Look at Full-time, Full-year Workers 1996-2001." Income Research Paper Series, Statistics Canada.

Marshall, K. 2003. "Benefits of the Job," Perspectives on Labour and Income, 4(5), 5-12.

Morissette, R. and Picot, G. 2005. "Low-paid Work and Economically Vulnerable Families over the Last Two Decades." Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper, Statistics Canada.