Paradox of BC’s economic boom means no payoff for casual workers: study

August 2, 2008

VANCOUVER — Despite solid economic growth and low unemployment rates, BC is home to a growing number of casual workers who struggle to achieve economic security, according to a new study by two University of Northern BC professors.

Improving the Economic Security of Casual Workers in BC, released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, looks at the troubling contradiction between BC’s booming economy and the precarious situation of workers who lack secure jobs. The study defines casual workers as employees who work without a contract or who have a contract lasting six months or less.

“Casual workers are caught in a double bind: low pay means they need to work more hours, taking on more work shifts. But irregular hours, shift work, short call-ins and minimal notice of scheduling are undermining their ability to balance work and family obligations,” says Fiona MacPhail, University of Northern BC Professor and study co-author. “Life is a scramble for casual workers, and recent provincial policy changes have made getting by even tougher.”

The authors examined Statistics Canada data and surveyed 160 casual workers from Vancouver and Prince George. Among their key findings:

  • The number of casual workers in BC increased by about 59,000 between 1997 and 2007. Casual workers as a percentage of all employed workers increased from 10 to 12 percent among women and from 9 to 10 per cent among men.
  • Casual workers experience a high degree of economic insecurity with respect to income, skills, employment, representation, and control of their time.
  • Women are more likely to be casual workers than men, and non-Canadian-born respondents reported lower levels of basic security than Canadian-born respondents, including difficulty accessing food, housing and health care.
  • Contrary to popular belief, most people do not choose casual work. About 80 per cent of survey respondents reported actively seeking permanent work.
  • Casual workers have been negatively affected by specific policy changes introduced in BC from 2001 onwards, including the reduction of the minimum wage to $6 for the first 500 hours of work and changes to the Labour Relations Code that make it harder to unionize.
  • While the rate of casual employment is dropping elsewhere in Canada, in BC it is growing.

Among the study’s recommendations:

  • Increase the minimum wage and index it to inflation;
  • Strengthen features of the Employment Standards Act (ESA) such as increasing the minimum shift (from two to four hours), posting work schedules, lengthening the notice before the start of the shift and providing termination notice;
  • Expand coverage of the ESA to include all unionized workers, independent contractors, and workers in all occupations, including agricultural workers and truck drivers; and
  • Enforce the ESA by eliminating the “self-help” kit and re-instituting direct monitoring and enforcement.

“BC is often promoted as ‘the best place to invest,’” says UNBC Professor and report –co-author Paul Bowles. “But if it is also going to be the ‘best place to work,’ the provincial government needs to rethink its approach.”


To arrange an interview, call Terra Poirier at 604-801-5121 x229.

This study is part of the Economic Security Project, a joint initiative of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Simon Fraser University, and funded primarily by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).