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Employment Financial security

Upselling precarious employment as ‘non-standard’ work

There seems to be a somewhat concerted effort afoot to sell Canadians on the idea that continued un(der)employment isn’t all that bad. A few days ago, CIBC put out a press release for a paper touting increased hidden unemployment as a boon for employers and job-seekers alike, among other curious claims.

This latest bit from L’Institut économique de Montréal tries to spin precarious employment as a positive development, one bourne of Canadian workers’ increased desire for more leisure and self-fulfilment. Unfortunately, the write-up is little more than a series of logical fallacies, conjecture, unsourced data, misquoted polls and non-sequiturs, devoid of fact and reason.

“This change has happened mostly because it is a desired phenomenon.”

When stuff happens to people, it’s mostly because they want it to happen to or will it upon themselves. The conclusion is included in the premise. That would be like saying the root cause of terrorism is terrorists or something. No one’s that stupid. Can’t recall which logical fallacy this falls under, whether it’s circular argument, false cause, both or something else (corrections welcome).

Unsourced data, unexplained chart

An unexplained chart showing unsourced data immediately follows the logical fallacy. The chart is titled Figure 1- Changes in non-standard employment as a percentage of total employment in Canada. The reader is left to assume the reference is to the share of Canadian employment that is neither full-time nor permanent. The chart has the ‘non-standard’ employment share decreasing through the eighties, rising late-80’s thru early-90’s, flattening, then continuing to rise from the mid-90’s to peak at 55% in 2010. A couple of interesting things happened in Canada between the end of the 80’s and mid-90’s. There was a major recession, followed by major government austerity that included massive cuts to unemployment benefits. Who knows, maybe L’Institut feels those were ‘desired phenomena’. But that’s being presumptuous in taking the given data as reliable or accurate. Which it’s not, as evidenced by

Linked Léger Marketing poll contradicts L’Institut chart data

The first reference link under the questionable chart is to a Léger Marketing poll carried out on behalf of Travail Québec. That May 2002 poll found

les travailleurs à situation non traditionnelle comptent pour le quart des travailleurs québécois.

Translated

workers in non-standard job situations accounted for a quarter of all Quebec workers.

The questionable chart from L’Institut shows the non-standard employment share at 47% in 2002. Oops. Maybe Quebec’s ratio was half rest of Canada’s. Or maybe one of these is just plain wrong.

Labour Force Survey (LFS) also contradicts L’Institut chart data

While the LFS month-to-month changes are notoriously unreliable, the long-term trends seem to be somewhat consistent. While there are no official measures of ‘non-standard’ employment, there is one LFS table that looks at tenure broken down by employment status. Here ‘tenure’ refers to continuous work for the same employer. The data is only provided in months, whereas the official definition of ‘full-year’ for the purpose of employment is 49 weeks. The official definition for ‘full-time’ is 30+ hours.

Chart 1 – ‘Non-standard’ (non-FYFT) share of employmentChart 1 - 'Non-standard' (non-FYFT) share of total employment

Source: CANSIM Table 282-0037 Labour force survey estimates (LFS), job tenure by type of work, sex and age group, unadjusted for seasonality, monthly (persons unless otherwise noted), Statistics Canada

Effectively, the data shown in Chart 1 defines any worker who’s worked less than 30 hours a week for less than 13 consecutive months for the same employer as engaged in ‘non-standard’ employment. Even with that overly conservative definition, ‘non-standard’ employment in 2002 was 33%. A more normal definition of simple continuous employment would likely yield the 25% figure the Léger poll found. Not only is L’Institut data completely off, it’s actually inverted.

“Indeed, many people yearn for such jobs… three quarters of people in such ‘non-standard’ jobs are choosing this course.”

There’s an interesting misrepresentation that’s actually perpetuated by the way StatsCan asks the LFS questions and compiles its data. A respondent’s reason for doing something or being a certain way doesn’t necessarily reflect a voluntary choice. For example, if someone indicates ‘school’ as their reason for working part-time, they could be doing so because they can’t afford to pursue their studies full-time or they could have chosen to remain in/return to school after failing to secure a better job. Same goes for ‘own illness’, ‘caring for children’ and ‘other responsibilities’. Doing something out of necessity or because it’s the only option available can’t be taken to indicate preference, which is how some choose to read it. The only reason that can be taken to indicate a personal preference is ‘personal preference’, which is noted separately in the LFS data .

Chart 2 – Part-time employment by preference
Chart 2 - Part-time employment by preference

Source: CANSIM Table 282-0013 – Labour force survey estimates (LFS), part-time employment by reason for part-time work, sex and age group, unadjusted for seasonality, monthly (persons), Statistics Canada

As with ‘non-standard’ employment incidence in Chart 1, L’Institut gets both the ratio and trend of voluntary ‘non-standard’ employment not only wrong, but inverted. Chart 2 shows in recent years only a quarter of those working part-time indicated doing so as a ‘personal preference’. Slightly more than a quarter indicated working part-time involuntarily. The interesting thing the LFS data shows is during times when the economy is doing well and unemployment is relatively low, the share of involuntary part-time work drops (late 90’s, mid-00’s). Presumably those who prefered full-time work had better luck finding it during those periods.

Ignores nature of ‘non-standard’ jobs

It should come as a surprise to no one, with possibly the exception of L’Institut, that the majority of temporary, part-time jobs are low-paying service sector or admin/support service jobs. In addition to being precarious, these jobs offer little opportunity for career advancement. That’s why they’ve traditionally been viewed as less desirable, transitional employment by most Canadians. With ever-decreasing job quality, more Canadians are settling for these jobs, if/when they can find them. The official Job Vacancy Survey data reports a job-seeker to jobs ratio of 6.5:1. That ratio nearly doubles (12.5:1) when factoring in discouraged job-seekers and involuntarily underemployment. Interestingly, Canadians settling for these traditionally transitional jobs actually undermines L’Institut’s argument, since the now more permanent state of underemployment has reduced the number of job changers, decreasing the number of ‘non-standard’ job opportunities. This is actually reflected in the LFS data shown in the above charts.

Ignores impact on social welfare, security

Second part of Léger Marketing study cited by L’Institut is titled

Sondage sur la situation d’emploi et les protections sociales des travailleurs en situation non traditionnelle

Translated

Poll of non-standard employment and the social security of workers in non-standard employment situations

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