Precarious young retail workers: Part 1

By Daniel Tseghay

I worked for a Canada-wide retail store. It is the instability, not knowing how many hours I would get in a week. Wages are low, so it’s really hard to plan my life. At the beginning of 2013, they had a huge layoff. Our supervisor, who was with the company for 15 years, he was laid off. Everyone who was full-time was laid off. Full-timers were getting around $16. After that, they didn’t really hire anyone full-time any more. It’s all part-time now. We get about $11 or $12. The number of hours you get are all over the place. There is no fixed number. It’s impossible to plan your life.

Samuel, as quoted in a 2015 report by the Workers’ Action Centre entitled “Still Working on the Edge: Building Decent Jobs from the Ground Up

Photo by Fred Chartrand/CP

On October 25, during the Canadian Labour Congress’s Young Worker Summit, Justin Trudeau took the stage. His reception wasn’t as warm as he might have expected. Dozens of the 400 young union activists from various locals and sectors throughout the country turned their back on the Prime Minister as he spoke.

They were protesting his support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union, his opposition to a $15 federal minimum wage, and other policies they believe disproportionately affect young workers. Just a few days before the demonstration, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said Canadians should get used to “job churn”, the short-term and precarious employment the young demonstrators rightfully felt no one should accept.

The “job churn” is a reality that’s becoming increasingly widespread. One young adult cobbles together full-time hours working at both a coffee shop and a restaurant, earning just barely enough to make rent and pay off their tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, and they’re constantly worried about losing hours at either job. Another works as a graphic designer, going from contract to contract like so many others in their field, hoping for a permanent position somewhere. One such freelance writer, Nora Loreto, worked as many as 17 contracts the year she was pregnant. Her experiences, and those of other millennials she knows, motivated her to write a book, From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement, that was largely about just how precarious things are for young people and what to do about it. It was published 4 years ago now and, looking at the numbers, things have only gotten worse for young workers.

On December 5, Statistics Canada released a report entitled “Perspectives on the Youth Labour Market in Canada, 1976 to 2015”. It focused on the employment experiences of people between the ages of 15 and 24 who aren’t full-time students and compared their experiences to those of previous generations at that age. The results were probably unsurprising for many who have kept up with the trends: young workers are having a harder time finding permanent and full-time work, defined by the report as consisting of at least 30 hours a week.

The report shows that this is a dramatic change since the 1970s. “From 1976 to 1978, the full-time employment rate—the percentage of the population with a full-time job—averaged 76% for men aged 17 to 24 and 58% for women in the same age group who were not in school full time,” says the report. “By the mid-2010s, that is from the beginning of 2014 to the third quarter of 2016, the corresponding percentages were 59% for men and 49% for women.”

What’s important to note, according to the report, is that this reduction in full-time work doesn’t correspond to a reduction in youth labour force participation. While young workers are employed in fewer full-time jobs they are more frequently working part-time jobs.

Meanwhile, even those dwindling numbers of youth who are working full-time are largely employed only temporarily. “Of all men under the age of 25 who were employed full time in 1989…7% held temporary jobs,” the report says. “By the mid-2010s, that percentage had risen to 24%…The corresponding percentages for young women were 8% in 1989 and 26% in the mid-2010s.”

The numbers so far are showing a clear gender inequality. While both young men and women are working more precarious jobs with time, women are securing even fewer full-time and permanent jobs. “Women are more likely to have part-time employment because of the need to take care of children,” says the report, “Still Working on the Edge”. And, considering the disproportionate number of racialized and recent immigrant workers in retail, the report importantly notes that they “are more likely to have temporary part-time work.”

Additionally, on top of there being fewer permanent and full-time work, real wages for young workers have dropped significantly over the years. “From the early 1980s to the early 1990s, full-time male employees aged 17 to 24 saw their median real hourly wages drop by roughly 15%, while women in the same age group experienced a 10% decline,” the Statistics Canada report says. “From the early 1990s to 2004, their median pay rates did not rise…[B]y 2015, young full-time male employees had median wages that were about 10% lower than those of their counterparts in the early 1980s. For females, the difference was 3%.”

According to the “Still Working on the Edge” report, in Ontario in 2014, “part-time workers earned, on average, 40 percent less per hour than full- time workers, while temporary workers earned 30 percent less.” This has contributed to Ontario’s percentage of low-wage workers increasing from 22% to 33% between 2004 and 2014.

And not only are workers earning less – they’re often going unpaid in the province. “Over one million Ontario workers worked overtime in 2014 and 59 percent of these workers did so without overtime pay,” says the report “Still Working on the Edge”. “People putting in overtime worked an average eight hours extra per week…Unpaid overtime continues to be among the top four violations confirmed by the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s proactive inspections and individual employment standards claims.”

A month after Statistics Canada released their report, TD Economics released one entitled “Canada’s Part-Time Conundrum” on January 4th, looking at the trend toward part-time jobs for all workers. Reviewing that report helps situate the experiences of young workers in a broader trend.

In it the authors noted that, despite there being seven years in a row with job growth, that’s primarily been in part-time positions.

Some of this is due to slower activity in oil-producing provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador) but in all other provinces, full-time jobs are only up 0.5% year-on-year to November, while part-time jobs increased 6.1%.

The study also notes a broader economic shift. “Underpinning this move toward part-time work appears to be changes in the industrial composition of employment,” the report says. “A longer term shift has been underway from goods-production towards services, with the latter generating a greater share of part-time positions.” As the 2015 report, “The Precarity Penalty: Employment Precarity’s Impact on Individuals, Families and Communities and What to do about It”, says: “During the past decade, over 550,000 manufacturing workers have been laid off. These jobs typically paid living wages and provided workplace benefits. Today, retail—an industry that typically pays below-average wages, lacks security and offers few benefits—is the leading employment sector in the economy.”

Numbers released by Statistics Canada earlier this month showed that, in BC, part-time jobs rose by more than 6,000 compared to February, solidifying this province’s lead in the country’s precarious work index. While 21.2% of BC jobs are part-time, 18.7% of Alberta’s and 18.5% of Ontario’s are part-time.

Yet another recent study echoes the two previous ones. Published by the Canadian Labour Congress in August of 2016, “Diving Without a Parachute: Young Canadians Versus a Precarious Economy” is worth noting. “Young workers are four times more likely to work part-time than older workers,” the report says. “Some do so by choice, but over 230,000 young workers would rather work full time hours but business conditions don’t allow for it or they simply couldn’t find full-time work.” The report says that of workers between the ages of 15 and 29, 48 per cent are working part-time while 20 per cent would rather be full-time; and that a third of young workers are in temporary jobs.

Worse, some are predicting much higher rates of precarity in the near future. The Toronto Region Board of Trade and United Way Toronto predict that low-wage and precarious work will grow over the next five years in their 2014 report, “Closing the Prosperity Gap: Solutions for a More Liveable City Region”. Walmart_615_330_80

What does this mean for the retail industry?

The report “Diving Without a Parachute” says that “more than half of young people now work in the service sector”. The report also notes that “while over half of young workers work in sales and service, only 3.5% of young workers in the accommodation and food services sector are covered by a union.” A May 2016 report, entitled “Part-time, Poorly paid, Unprotected: Experiences of precarious work in Retail, Food Service, & Hospitality in Victoria, BC”, published by the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group with assistance from the Retail Action Network, situates that in a broader trend for retail workers. “While 31.5% of workers in BC belong to a union,” the report says, “this provincial average is more than double the percentage of unionized retail workers.” A similar trend is apparent in Ontario. According to Angelo DiCaro, a Unifor National Representative and lead researcher on the Retail Industry, in an interview with, while the rate of unionization in Canada is about 30%, in Ontario’s retail sector it’s only about 14%.

Zenee Maceda, an organizer with UFCW Canada, regularly talks with young workers who are interested in forming a union and she sees the difficulties they face in trying to organize. “It’s really difficult to organize themselves because of the part-time, or the temporary, nature of their working condition,” says Maceda. “Because most of these young folks are in that working condition with other young people it’s very difficult to actually engage people in organizing campaigns because they probably don’t know each other, or the turnover is so high.”

Tim Deelstra, Engagement & Media Relations Strategist, UFCW Locals 175 & 633, and one of the speakers, along with Angelo DiCaro and others, at a panel discussion in March entitled “Precarious and Political: Retail Workers’ Struggle and Union Renewal in Ontario Supermarkets”, spoke with about the barriers to unionization. “The laws in Ontario are not as progressive as they’ve been in the past with respect to people’s abilities to get unions,” he says. “For example, we used to have a model of automatic card check certification that was removed by the Harris Tories in ‘95. We feel strongly that that’s a better model for workers. It allowed them their democratic ability to choose to have a union without the employer being able to put intense pressure on them – particularly when you’re talking about younger workers, who are feeling very insecure in the workplace.”

With unions providing workers a greater measure of stability, better wages, and more extensive benefits (or any at all), the fact that so few young workers in retail are unionized only deepen their precarity.

Read Part 2 here.

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