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Nora Loreto worked 17 contracts the year she was pregnant with twins. She's not alone. A majority of her generation of millenials are plagued by "precarious work."

Loreto, a freelance writer from Quebec City, couldn't land a full-time job and needed all the income she could get. Twin pregnancies are often complicated and Loreto thought she was going to lose one of the twins after 20 weeks.

When her twins were born prematurely and hospitalized for around seven weeks, Loreto had to go straight back to work before going on maternity leave.

“You start to realize really quickly that the only thing you have is goodwill with your contracts,” Loreto said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be going into labour early. I was so precarious at that point.”

Diving without a parachute

Precarious working conditions like Loreto’s are the subject of a new report from the Canadian Labour Congress called Diving Without a Parachute. Her story is emblematic of an entire generation of young people burdened by the rise of the so-called “gig” economy.

The Canadian Labour Congress defines “precarious work” as those jobs with undefined hours with low to no wages or contract work. Precarious work ranges from unpaid internships to part-time barista gigs, work as an Uber driver or freelancers like Nora Loreto.

This new reality for young workers means the majority of those aged 15–29 are in part-time work or hold down multiple contracts at a time, with a striking absence of the 9-to-5 day-jobs that characterized previous generations.

Jobs numbers from Statistics Canada back up the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) findings.

According to the Labour Force Survey, a monthly data-gathering endeavour by Statistics Canada used to track employment trends nationwide, 71,000 full-time jobs were lost since June — the largest month-over-month drop in years. But part-time employment was on the rise, with 40,000 new jobs created.

Over that same period, employment for those aged 15–24 dropped 28,000. All of those job losses were part-time positions.

Women face a more precarious outlook than men. Across an even broader age range of 25–54, women lost 39,000 full-time positions while part-time jobs rose 38,000.

According to the CLC report, unemployment among young workers aged 15-29 is “consistently double that of core age workers.” One-third of young workers are in temporary positions, and 13.2 per cent of 15–29 year olds are unemployed. And, along with part-time work, unpaid internships are also on the rise. There are currently over 300,000 unpaid interns in Ontario alone.

This graphic from the CLC illustrates the precarious working conditions young workers are facing today. Courtesy CLC.

The CLC found that precarious work doesn't only impact millennials but has broader social impacts as well.

"The lack of opportunities to get ahead is threatening to cement a growing population of the 'working poor' into lifelong social and economic inequality, with young Canadians being especially impacted," it says.

The federal government has taken notice and commissioned a youth advisory council that will meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to tackle youth issues. Thousands applied, and the federal government is now tasked with forming a 30-person board from the pool of applicants. ​

Trudeau's spokesman Cameron Ahmad said the council will tackle youth issues of a national scope, things like precarious working conditions, community-building, and fighting climate change. He said that while they don't know the policy implications or what steps will be taken once the youth council's recommendations are made to the PM, nothing's being ruled out in terms what issues they'll discuss.

"We're not going to box this in in terms of what is discussed and what topics they decide to bring to the forefront. Anything related to the job market — finding jobs, creating opportunities, working conditions for young people — I think all of those things we can probably expect them to raise, but I wouldn't want to pre-judge what they're going to talk about," Ahmad said.

A freelancer’s tale

After giving birth to her twins, Loreto said two of her employers took seven months to honour contracts they’d signed with her.

Loreto took in about $31,000 that year, patching together contract and freelance work to make a living. The majority of her income came from a single contract with the Canadian Association of Labour Media where she said she made roughly $25,000 in 2013.

In an astonishing feat of productivity, she also published a book that year. It took her eight months to finish its 164 pages, for which she was paid $5,000 up front. She said she made “so little money on the book it was embarrassing,” even though it sold relatively well. To supplement her income, she publishes features in magazines like Canadian Dimension, and gets paid between $100–$150 per contract. Loreto said that contractors aren’t paying what they should for the media work she’s done.

Quebec City-based Nora Loreto is a freelance writer. She lives with her twins and partner, a university professor. Photo courtesy Nora Loreto.

Loreto said one magazine paid her $100 for a feature she wrote this year. She interviewed nine people for the story, and estimated that on average each interview took an hour. At that rate, she’s well below minimum wage already, before the research and writing.

She manages to pull it off, however, “because I have a better main contract that really puts me in a position that masks how bad it really is for me,” Loreto said. “Someone fully making their life off this kind of work without having a contract that pays a good wage, then it’s impossible. You can’t make ends meet.”

Her income would have been far less than the minimum wage without that principal contract, and would have forced her to look elsewhere either for more contracts or part-time work in another sector.

Gig economy takes over: “Young workers have really been the guinea pigs of this agenda”

The CLC’s Emily Norgang said some of the missing jobs in 2016 are hangovers from the 2009 recession, when young Canadians lost 174,000 jobs. The new "gig" economy has taken over, creating more service jobs that pressure workers into accepting poor working conditions and more risk, even while many employers - like Internet-based companies such as Uber - grow richer and stronger.

She said labour laws and employment standards haven’t kept pace with this “new world of work,” and that young workers have been hit disproportionately hard by the shift to the gig economy.

Norgang said these jobs often lack of access to social safety nets and have low levels of unionization among employees.

“Young workers have really been the guinea pigs of this agenda,” she said.

CLC, Emily Norgang, senior researcher, precarious work
Emily Norgang, senior researcher at the Canadian Labour Congress, in Ottawa on August 25, 2016. Photo by Mike De Souza.

Precarious workers of the world unite: Urban Worker Project

Organizations like the Urban Worker Project — a Toronto-based advocacy organization that advocates better pay for contract work as well as access to health and dental benefits for precarious workers — are trying to change that.

Urban Worker Project Co-Founder Stephanie Nakitsas started the organization to “give a stronger voice to the people who are working freelance, self-employed and contract all across Canada.”

She and former member of Parliament Andrew Cash launched the UWP in April, and have since signed up around 3,500 workers across the country. They host events, and connect people to other young workers who can share resources and experiences among one another.

She said that since around 50 per cent of all new Canadian jobs are precarious, she and her colleagues wanted to make sure freelancers and contract workers could organize and raise awareness about precarious working conditions.

“[We wanted to] come together and take political action on things that would make life better for urban workers, like improved access to health and dental benefits that aren’t tied to an employer, advocating for better protections under the law, and getting urban workers better access to parental leave,” Nakitsas said.

But Nakitsas said a big focus of of their work has been trying to change the public’s misconceptions about young workers.

“A lot of people think that those of us working in the gig economy all have this glamorous life of working in a coffee shop or a co-working space with a MacBook. But that often hides the fact that most of us have tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, and that we’re spending the majority of our income on housing, living with roommates, and that many urban workers are supporting their parents or are parents themselves,” Nakitsas said.

She acknowledges that some of the young people connected with UWP like setting their own schedules through contract work, but there’s an inherent and dangerous insecurity in freelance work.

One of her clients at the UWP started a Toronto-based art gallery called Younger Than Beyonce, showcasing the work of artists younger than Beyonce. She also works on contract doing design for a community newspaper, and works as a freelance photographer. But her preference is to work full-time, and she hasn’t been able to find full-time work in her field.

Nakitsas said that 40 per cent of people working in the creative sector in Ontario are working precariously. She said that while this kind of freelance and contract work has been prevalent in the arts and culture sector for awhile, it’s becoming more pervasive in other sectors as well.

“We definitely know that some people choose to live this way and self-identify as freelancers. We (also) know that there’s a huge number of people out there who haven’t chosen to live this way.”

Canadian Freelancers Union

Other organizations are trying to protect freelancers in different ways.

Nora Loreto is an elected representative of the Canadian Freelancers Union, an organization that isn’t a real union in the legal sense. They don’t have collective bargaining rights, and they don’t have certification with any of Canada’s labour boards.

With only moral force behind them, the CFU can send angry letters, or go “full program” on a non-paying employer with a blitz of letters.

Loreto said that's only happened once this year, and they had to warn the freelancer that her relationship with the organization that owed her money could end as a result. She was okay with that, and she ultimately got paid.

Loreto said there are powerful forces putting precarious workers at risk even when they do find gigs.

“There’s also just societal oppression. There’s imbalances of power. There’s people feeling really isolated and they either feel like they don’t have the power or just don’t have the power to go up against someone who owes them money.”

She said the CFU is currently working to set standard rates for freelancers across the country.

“At the end of the day, whether or not you’re unionized shouldn’t give people carte blanche to exploit you.”

A look at the diversity of Canada's youth population. Courtesy CLC.

Precarious work, crowded living

The Canadian Labour Congress report also found that young workers are more likely to live at home or with roommates, and that buying a house in your 20s is becoming less and less common.

Samantha Henry is a 29-year-old Torontonian. She has three kids, works part-time at a grocery store, and recently moved into a house with her parents and boyfriend, a full-time construction worker.

She had been living in an apartment with her kids and boyfriend, while her parents lived in a separate building. At around $1,300 per month, rent was expensive, and they decided it would be cheaper for all of them to simply move in together. So they did.

Henry’s grandmother also moved in.

“Right now, I can’t afford daycare. It’s very expensive, especially having three kids. It’s very hard to get them into daycare and to pay for all of them to be in there. It works out a lot better for me to have people to watch my kids. So that gives me a little more leeway to work.”

The house is packed, and Henry has aspirations to buy a house of her own one day. But that just isn’t in the cards right now. She plans to stay with her parents long-term, maybe buying a house together.

Her work situation is inadequate. She’d like to work full-time and can see herself getting more involved with her grocery store’s union, Unifor. The job is unionized, which nets Henry several benefits most young workers never get, including dental and medical. But full-time work is hard to come by.

“It is very, very hard to get full-time. Some people wait 10 years to get full-time. You’re limited to probably four or five hours a day,” Henry said.

If she gets more hours than that, someone probably called in sick. Henry doesn’t know her schedule more than a week in advance. That makes it tricky to schedule kids and the rest of her life, all for a job that pulls in around $300 per week.

Henry said that if her wage went up to the proposed $15 per hour minimum wage that the CLC is calling for, her life would open up.

“There’s a lot of things I’d like to do with my kids that I can’t afford right now. Being able to actually save money instead of living paycheque to paycheque or save up for a trip,” Henry said. “I guess it would be a big ease on myself knowing that you have this extra money that you can put away. I can’t wait for the day that I’m not living paycheque to paycheque.”

Record levels of debt

Freelancer Nora Loreto Iis luckier than most in terms of student debt. She holds two degrees, a bachelors and a masters, and graduated without a lick of student debt.

But it took her seven years to complete her undergraduate education because only two of those years were full-time. The other five were spent going to class part-time and working the rest of her available hours.

Student debt has skyrocketed over the past few decades. The average undergraduate completes their degree with around $25,000 in debt, and PhD grads are looking at $46,000.

Henry said that many of her coworkers at the grocery store are recent university graduates who simply can’t find work in their field.

The CLC found that among Canada’s youth population of 6.8-million, 48 per cent of young workers work part-time. Some of them do so by choice while paying their way through school, but a significant minority, 20 per cent, do so involuntarily.

A look at student debt carried by young people over multiple periods and at multiple degree levels. Courtesy CLC.

The CLC’s Emily Norgang said that, broadly speaking, the millennial generation is highly educated, adaptable and diverse. But the job market is failing them.

“They’re leaving school with record levels of debt, but they just aren’t finding jobs that make use of their skills and education. Instead, they end up stuck in precarious work for which they’re overqualified,” Norgang said.

There has been much talk of youth issues in the news lately. August 12 was International Youth Day and UN General Secretary Ban-Ki Moon addressed a crowd of students at the University of Calgary declaring that “youth can do more than find jobs. They can create them.”

But Loreto says the solutions have to be more inclusive than telling young people to pursue entrepreneurship.

“The most important part is that the solutions have to be collective and they have to be generalizable,” Loreto said. “They can’t just be ‘you, Nora, go back to school and become an entrepreneur and start your own donut-making business.’ That’s not a solution, but that’s what we’re being told the solution is.”

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I would like to know what percentage of students in each category graduate with zero debt.
I also want to know if these are included in the above averages.
It would be more instructive to have a histogram of the fraction of students with debts in intervals of, say, $10,000.

Great article but lousy bar chart which suggests that, somehow, immigrant or aboriginal, LGBTQ, Disabled are somehow mutually exclusive categories. Can't someone, for example, be aboriginal, LGTQQ, Disabled at the same time?