Precarity: How tenuous employment enables abuse

One of my 26-year old sons, J., has worked in the restaurant industry since leaving high school. 
He gets jobs readily, and receives glowing feedback; he's hard-working, dependable, genial, honest. He takes pride in the success of the enterprise.

He has been:
- hired for a full-time job only to hear after one day to one month that the job is now cut to two or three days per week (happened on five different jobs)
- assessed, without notice, $160 out of his tips for two required deluxe aprons that the place decided all floor staff now had to wear. (Not beer money to him, more like a week's groceries.)
- paid with cheques that bounced, and
- told when reporting for a scheduled shift, "We aren't busy, go home" (with no pay).

The recourse for workers in these positions is to file a formal complaint with a government agency, but J. and his colleagues fear reprisal and say blacklisting is prevalent. As Robert Reich wrote in "Why There's No Outcry", "No one has any job security. The last thing they want to do is make a fuss and risk losing the little they have."

He is but one example of precarity, the employment condition for so many workers. Precarity does not cause exploitation, but it makes abuse that much  easier for employers who want to treat people that way. 

"The politics of precarity", by Nicole Cohen and Greig De Peuter in Briarpatch Magazine describes the rise of this type of work, and the response of Andrew Cash, a Toronto Member of Parliament (NDP, Davenport riding). This is increasingly the world our youth face (despite high levels of education) so I recommend reading the article even if it does not reflect your political stance.

The authors say:
"Commentators use the tag “precariat” to refer to the swelling population of those in precarious work, which has grown amid changing conditions of production, deindustrialization, outsourcing, declining unionization, and a shift from full-time salaried work to flexible arrangements with weak protections. 

While lean businesses feast on a buffet of options beyond costly full-time employees, the consequence is a deepening insecurity for everyone else." 

Outside the notoriously exploitative restaurant industry, I have witnessed unpaid internships, unpaid overtime, and the practice of the "eternal contract", which allows employers to forgo paying employee benefits—not just among small business, but also in some of the world's largest global corporations.

I am sympathetic to the challenges of running a small business. But there is disciplined management and there's abuse, and I've seen far too much abuse, not only with my son. Youth, immigrants and post-50s are especially vulnerable to unfair practices

For several months last year, we paid J.'s rent while the dashing celebrity chef who owned his restaurant  told viewers of his cooking show how much fun they'd have (for about $175 per person) at his chic, popular restaurant, where his staff are dedicated to your good time. 

Meanwhile, a 50-year-old friend wrote that she was recently fired from a factory job for "trying to be Norma Rae". Unions arose for a reason, and though  struggling today, were born of people saying, This is not right. 

J. left the restaurant world to pursue his career in butchery, partly because he always enjoyed that work, and partly as a reaction to what he experienced. While some of his colleagues embrace precarity as a strategy that permits time for other interests, J. isn't that guy; he longs to build skills within a steady job.

Tenuous employment has increased across sectors and nations; the accompanying erosion of employment standards has politicized my sons and their friends, regardless of party affiliation.

They are not alone; as Ross Douthat, writing about the American situation in "Leaving Work Behind", says, "Both 'rugged-individualist' right-wingers and more communitarian conservatives tend to see work as essential to dignity, mobility and social equality, and see its decline as something to be fiercely resisted."

Precarity removes opportunity, but more importantly, it removes the aspects that Studs Terkel described in his 1974 book, "Working":

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”



Here is an initiative in our district to address an aspect of this issue: Our Federal and Québec parlementarians respond to an appeal by a "self-employed worker" by calling a meeting, which was very well attended, many turned away. (The photo must have been taken before everyone arrived).

The Québec electoral campaign meant a hiatus, but the campaign is set to resume soon.

Though it is a question of balance of power, as on paper many of the abuses your son endured are outlawed here, but complaining is often a mark against tenuous workers and freelancers.
une femme said…
I've known several people who have worked for companies that laid off entire swaths of workers only to hire them back as "independent contractors," which means they work with almost no protection and certainly no benefits. It's deplorable. There's one particular entertainment company here that had such a culture of abuse that employees used to joke, "if you don't come in on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Sunday," (meaning expect to work 7 days a week or lose your job).
I have had so much experience of this. My son in law was made redundant a yr ago despite an 7 yr exemplary record. As his job is HR he knew they had not followed the correct procedure, got a lawyer and got a settlement. He now works for himself and is just managing to support my daughter and 2 small grandchildren
A similar thing happened to my son who is an architect. He was finally so stressed he had little option but to hand in his resignation. It takes 9 yrs to qualify as an architect and it seems young architects are paid very little and not treated well.
My father worked for the same company for 40 yrs and retired with a large pension.
Those days are long gone and I think young people today are having a very hard time. Houses very expensive, no security etc.
Having said that they are both now working for themselves and seem much happier.
Perhaps no security at all is better than thinking you are secure when you are not.
Except for the first 10 yrs I have always been self employed and can't imagine any other way.
LauraH said…
When I first heard of unpaid internships I was astounded. Then I started to hear stories from my sister and cousins about the struggles of their kids to find work. Something is terribly out of whack when bright, energetic, eager young adults can't get a foothold.
frugalscholar said…
My children are about the same age as your sons and I have been observing both the brainy friends of my children and the more average students in my classes. The lucky ones are those that decide on a traditional path of a certain type: the med students, my son's classmate who is now at Goldman Sachs, the petroleum engineers (recruited out of college at $120,000). Even those in law school and nursing school may suffer "precarity"--a term new to me.

For many, there does not seem to be a clear or easy way into the middle class.

Then there's what's called the "adjunctification" of higher education.

As for your son: there are some neat, new --hip--butcher shops in New Orleans!
materfamilias said…
Precarity is a term regularly used now in my field where brilliant young people with PhDs, post-docs, publications in prestigious journals, presentations at important conferences (which they have to scrounge funding to attend) working mad, mad hours to do all the right things for many years, and then looking for a contract for their 5th, 6th, 7th year of Sessional work -- for which they get paid less than tenured colleagues teaching the same course, often with no benefits. Despite all their problems, I'm a solid supporter of unions. . . I hope your son's talent and skills and hard work land him, soon, in a place where those are appreciated enough to afford him job security and some financial comfort.
Kristien62 said…
I worked in healthcare for many years before retiring in 2011. When I began, I was shocked to find that nurse's aides, the lowest paid workers, were hired part-time so the facility could avoid providing them with health insurance. They could work multiple "contracts" which would add up to full-time work, but no health insurance since each "contract" was part-time. I was appalled at the lengths the industry would go to in order to deny coverage. Abuses abound and people desperate for work suffer them in order to remain employed.
Marilyn said…
When I was a very young, naive teacher in the early 70s, I made the mistake of voicing my opposition to joining a provincial teachers' association and to being bound by a code of ethics and practices that I felt, too often, just served to protect unworthy colleagues. Finally, an older, much wiser colleague, took me aside and asked if, as an ardent feminist, I was willing to work for less pay than a male colleague and face immediate dismissal if I didn't attend church on Sundays. My dumbfounded expression was her answer. Thanks to her, I started to understand the freedom, equality, and security that I enjoyed as a newly minted female teacher rested on the actions taken by her generation in their fight to unionize the teaching profession.
But I'm wondering now if it wasn't my generation's lack of interest and support for the union movements established by our parents and grandparents that has led to the precarity and abuses faced by our children and grandchildren? Why do the working conditions you describe for your son seem to eerily resemble the conditions that my grandfather faced in the 30s and 40s?
Madame Là-bas said…
My daughter who is a single 30 something gets laid off by the same employer every year. She's worked there for 17 years. Work for the next generation is so often precarious. The food service industry and health care seem to be open to a lot of abuse.
Rita said…
Marilyn's comment, "But I'm wondering now if it wasn't my generation's lack of interest and support for the union movements established by our parents and grandparents that has led to the precarity and abuses faced by our children and grandchildren?" does have a lot of truth to it, There is a complex history here. The book "Who Stole the American Dream" by Kermit Smith is a good place to start getting an understanding of the history.
Eleanorjane said…
Fantastic post, Duchesse!

I worked in the hospitality industry when I was studying and yes, you have no rights and they can treat you however. One job said 'Yes, you can work over the whole summer holidays' then just didn't roster me after New Year's Eve, leaving me in the lurch (luckily I had a supportive Mum). Currently I'm on a 12 month contract, facing not being able to get a permanant job... there are a lot of contracts about as it gives employers more freedom and flexibility.

In England, we've had some talk about zero hours contracts, where people like aged care workers aren't promised any hours of work a week but have to hold themselves ready to work up to full time. This is shockingly common and just not a way to live your life!

Another thing that's going on in England is a campaign for a living wage i.e. enough to actually live on, not the minimum wage where you can't actually keep body and soul together.
Duchesse said…
laggatta: I mentioned fear of reprisal in this post, and have seen it- not an irrational fear.

Pseu: He was also told to come in 45 minutes early each day to do prep, no pay. He refused; the relatively slower time before peak service was entirely adequate to do prep.

Josephine: You are living it too; thank you for your stories.

frugal: There are a number of butcher shops like that here; he has his eye on them. Right now J. needs to learn more and has just this week landed in a place he loves, which so far is giving him full time work. Fingers crossed.

materfamilias: When I wrote this post I thought of M's experience in Toronto... you know where I mean. I too am pro-union despite the problems.

Kristien62: Is someone organizing these people?

Marilyn: I loved this powerful story and thank you. When you're young you are often thinking only about the figure on the paycheque.

As for "why working conditions resemble the 30s and 40s", the Reich article is a good place to start. I thought one of the problems with the Occupy Movement was that it focused on the 1%, and not on how to address such abuses for the entry-level workers, with clear action steps.

Mme: Is someone organizing these people?

Rita: Thank you for the book reference.

I have very direct experience with the material taught by seminar firms who instruct management in how to keep unions out. It may come as a surprise but their message is: treat people decently and you will not get a union; treat people unfairly and you will send them to the only people who seem to care.

Duchesse said…
Eleanorjane: I call those on-call workers "human taxicabs". Living wage movement is closely aligned with precarity.

I do think in some developed country- and I hope within my lifetime- workers will rise up to demand a restoration of good wages, workplace safety and decent employment practices.
Anonymous said…
Sounds like Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In Foundation dedicated to "empowering women" looking to hire unpaid interns. What hypocrisy.

Anonymous said…
There is a very high percentage of government workers who now work on contract with no security or benefits. Back in the olden days, working for an extended period (I recall it was 3 years) meant the contract worker became permanent in the Federal Govt. Naturally many didn't get a contract renewal after 2 1/2 years. But it was a route that is now closed.
And check out the situation of sessional lecturers in universities--lots of students never see a fully employed professor from one term to the next. Not good for students and not good for education generally.
This is all too popular these days. Thanks for raising the issue and good luck to your son.
Araminta said…
A similar type of experience is that of the sessional lecturers in universities both here in Canada and in the US. They are hired by the semester, paid, minimally, by the course, teach a full work-load,usually of introductory courses with large numbers of students and heavy marking loads. They have no benefits, no teaching assistants and have little chance of a tenure-track position. If they complain, they don't get hired the next semester because there are always new graduate students who will be willing to take on the same courses. And all of this with completed PhDs. The universities are cutting their operating costs at these young people's expense.
I am grateful that I came through the same system and had a tenured position in the 1970s. We were lucky and I am appalled at the conditions that my children's friends have to accept.
Duchesse said…
Anons (both) and Araminta: My reply to several commenters, "Is someone organizing these people?" is not glib. And if we are not one of "those people" (sessional lecturers. unpaid interns, etc.), we can still be engaged at any level of activism in which we are willing to participate.

One of the activities of which I am most proud in my career was designing a participatory conference (with every single employee present) that resulted in hundreds of contract manufacturing jobs being made full-time.

As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful , committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Yes, Duchesse, but I thought I had to bring it up again, as in theory we have wonderful recourses in Québec, with la Commission des normes du travail (Labour Standards Commission).

One thing I must point out is that these conditions do not only affect young people. There again, Duchesse said this in her opening post. It can be very difficult finding a job of any type or getting more freelance gigs when most of your employers aka clients have retired. In the local meeting I attended, while there were many young people, there was also a good contingent of boomers.

frugalscholar, NOLA must be wonderful, but difficult in terms of healthcare coverage!

On a completely different topic, first day this year I have the door to the balcony from my home office open, and hear birds chirping, people laughing and bicycles whirring by!
Duchesse said…
I am aware that various precariat movements include freelancers as well, and though it shares some characteristics, the freelance model of work is not the same situation.

My post is about •employees• of organizations subject to employment standards legislation and those organizations who deliberately ignore or subvert them.

Self-employment means you don't get some of the benefits employees have (depending on organization and level).

I too have worked that way for over 25 years. Clients retiring (or worse) meant always thinking about adding new clients to the pipeline. I have plenty of friends who tried self-employment in my line of work and yours and just couldn't stand it.

Yes, but there are a lot of "fake" freelancers, because employers don't want to provide benefits. It is not an all or none situation. That is one thing that emerged clearly from our local meeting here.
NN Bartley said…
Wow! Very well written and I had not heard the term "precariat" but totally think it needs to be out there. I have a 22 yr old that has been in a depression and part of that stems from the "why bother" attitude. Go to college, for what? Work minimum wage? Why?
I used to think "poor them" of my brother and sister in laws that had unionized jobs but now as my self employed husband and I reach retirement age-his siblings are set for the long term and somehow that "save for the future" thing for us doesn't seem to be looking so hot.
Thanks for a thought provoking read.
NN Bartley said…
Wow! Very well written and I had not heard the term "precariat" but totally think it needs to be out there. I have a 22 yr old that has been in a depression and part of that stems from the "why bother" attitude. Go to college, for what? Work minimum wage? Why?
I used to think "poor them" of my brother and sister in laws that had unionized jobs but now as my self employed husband and I reach retirement age-his siblings are set for the long term and somehow that "save for the future" thing for us doesn't seem to be looking so hot.
Thanks for a thought provoking read.
Anonymous said…
Both your post and the comments are depressingly familiar in Australia. Both public and private employers are using similar techniques to circumvert both the laws of the land and the laws of fairness. They are aided and abetted by governments of both left and right, determined to "increase our productivity." CEOs in all industries earn obscene amounts while preaching the need for their workers to tighten their belts, be available for work at any time, accept poorer conditions.
Many Unions have lost trust and respect through both recent corruption scandals and also their failure over many years to defend or even recognize the needs of part time workers, particularly women and parents juggling careers with parenthood.
It will have to change, but I am not optimistic it will happen before a whole generation are disadvantaged and damaged.
Anonymous said…
This is what comes of letting boomers have their way with the economy and business. "Greatest generation" my foot.
Anonymous said…
I think I know what UneFemme (Pseu) in the above comment is referring to. I won't name the entertainment company either but it is a major film studio. Actually, there are MANY film companies firing people and then hiring temps or part-time employees just so they don't have to pay for healthcare and other employee benefits. There is rampant unethical behavior and greed.

My husband also works in the film industry and sees this happening even more than before the economy nose-dived. Of course employees don't want to make waves because they NEED whatever they can get. Many employees work tons of overtime and no longer get paid for it, but don't complain for fear it will look bad on them, not the employer. They are afraid it may compromise future employability. It is deplorable.

It sounds like your son is on the right track. Good luck to him :)
Anonymous said…
This seismic shift in the work world has been playing out for a long time, at least 15. It started with different wage bands for new hires versus the older workers in the union jobs or now when you say that losing 8,000 jobs in CDA Post is okay because it's "attrition".

The older workers generally go along with it because they themselves are not affected, I'm all right Jack pull up your bootstraps. As long as I get my pension all is right in the world. The 1 percenters kids are never affected, they all get job placements through the good-ole boys networks, like say Mulroney's kid getting a TV gig.

I would be hugely resentful if all I could get was a contract gov job and the reason for it is because they promised such huge retirement benefits to the older workers that they can't afford to hire any new ones.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: The workforce is moving to ever more work that does not follow an employer-employee model; the key is to figure out how to embed equitable practices in such an arrangement. Before the industrial revolution relatively little work was conducted by that model; we need to return to self-managed work that is not exploitive. To me that speaks of either a new era for unions, or government programs that extend UI and other benefits to those formerly restricted from them.

Anon@7:02: As a contractor to multinational corporations and government for over 25 years, I say, it's all about the contractor's rate of pay, and then, his or her discipline in managing that money. I funded my own vacation pay, pension and other benefits I would have received as an employee. (I was significantly helped by having universal healthcare here in Canada.)

And in one of those corporations, WorldComm, those "huge retirement benefits promised to older workers" vanished when the company's executives were indicted for fraud and the money had vanished. So imagine how those retirees or even middle aged workers felt.

Anon@12:55; I am deeply grateful people are speaking out here but hope this is not just a cathartic vent. Find out who has an interest in organizing these people. Write letters, demonstrate, lobby. Love you for writing me but in a way I am the wrong person. Let's go!

Susan said…
I haven't read the comments yet, but want to say that I have seen what you describe happening over many many years. And, there are those who would say that precarious jobs are for youths--and they are just entry level jobs anyway. I've watched UPS drivers (who have a lot of responsibility) be denied a full time position so the company can save providing certain benefits. It is also popular to be critical of unions.

I think there needs to be a change. I would like to see everyone take up this cause. You could say that the minimum wage issue in the United States is but one small part of this same battle.
Duchesse said…
Anon@10:46; I kept the issue of exec pay out of this post for reasons of brevity, but of course it's part of the mix. The issue of precarity is rising to the fore among workers in all developed countries.

NN Bartley: I wish I could put my arms around you, and your son. My wish is that he finds something that lights a spark in him. He may have to try this, try that.

Working for minimum wage is a way to keep yourself afloat when you're learning and weighing options.
Duchesse said…
Anon@11:26: Actually, the "greatest generation" were the boomer's •parents•, the people who lived through the Depression and fought in WWII. Also known as the "GI Generation", they came home from the war and made those boomers.

Blaming an entire, diverse generation for "having their way with the economy and business" because of their age is erroneous causality.

Ask yourself, "Who supports this increasing precarity, and who supports fair, inclusive work policy?"

Kristien62 said…
There was an attempt to unionize the workers at the first nursing home, but it was unsuccessful. I believe there was fear that jobs would be lost. The second one I worked at was state-run and had a union. The workers faired much better. Sadly, it was a terrible place to work, union or not, and I would have stayed at the first facility if wages were not so disparate. I haven't been in touch with the folks from the first facility and hope that they were able to get representation.
LPC said…
I had never heard this term, "precarity," but I think it's a very good one. Finding work that satisfies - a lifestyle, a culture, and a set of compatible tasks - is as Freud told us as important as love.

I believe in the right, and in the fact the requirement of businesses to manage to their bottom line. That's how the machinery of an economy drives productivity best. But we should be well into making our businesses as humane as possible, and these stories to me are stories of petty human beings indulging their bad behavior.

Glad your son has found a career with some staying power.
Anonymous said…
I am shocked that his employer made him pay for clothing that he is required to wear. In Quebec,this is ILLEGAL. It is too bad that none of the workers felt they could file a complaint about this flagrant abuse.
If the abuser is not exposed or fined, he will continue abusing, that's for sure.

Au Bas de l'échelle (literally on the bottom rung, though its English name is Rank and File) is an association for advocacy and defence of non-unionized workers.

It is located close to the Jean-Talon Market.

Vagabonde said…
That was a fascinating post as well as all the comments. I had never heard of précarité but it certainly describes the problems with those jobs. I am pleased to be retired. I worked for 27 years for a large corporation – towards the last five years they would ask us to work up to 8 hours extra per week, unpaid, as a gift to the company, and then they would give us “compensation time” for any extra hours, but we had to take this time off within 3 months or lose it, and usually we were too busy to take the time off. However half of the work force was unionized – the “hourly” so the other half, the management side (my side) would get the same benefits usually, such as extra paid vacations between Christmas and New Year, and working 9 hours per day for 9 days so we could take every other Friday off, plus working our 9 hours starting anytime between 5 am and 9 am – so all this helped a lot, then also I have a pension now (which was eliminated for new employees.)

It seems to me that employees in the US, at least, don’t organize to demand more benefits. For example, in the US, there is no law for employers to give paid vacations. In Europe it is the law. While my daughters were little I worked part-time for a man who said he would give me a week’s vacation after one year. Then he told me he had changed his mind and added that he did not have to give me any vacation anyway. I quit after 1 ½ years – he was a Frenchman by the way working in the US…..
Duchesse said…
Susan: Many workers that we, as clients think are full time are not. I have met seasonal UPS drivers at soup kitchens where I have volunteered.

Kristien62: Having a union does not mean the conditions are good but they should be better. There are some inept unions, though.

lagatta: Thanks for this. At his resto, the staff were terrified of complaint. I think the only way to do it is a class action suit.

LPC: You wrote while ago about upping your quota of hard news reading; this, I predict will put this term before you more.

Eve: We all knew it was illegal. They are scared. But I believe witnessing this kind of abuse will bear fruit; as I said, they have become far more politicized.

Vagabonde: I've posted before on unpaid overtime, probably the most common abuse. the "lieu time off" is suspicious; I too have seen it offered but just try to take it. I can imagine how you feel bout the US maternity leave policy!

Rita said…
The author of "Who Stole the American Dream" is Hedrick Smith.
Susan said…
I hate to break this to those who are blaming the Boomers for the downturn in job security and pay--but it is the generation after the boomers who are managing/creating many of the private equity companies which are buying and selling companies for profit--without a care as to what happens to employees.
Murphy said…
I am late to the discussion but this has been on my mind of late. My two older children are both college educated - they did well at good schools in the US. But when it comes to work, most options are for part-time jobs with low pay, and for which they are over-qualified. They are both willing to work more hours or work-their-way up, but have been told that management limits hours and overtime pay so as not to have to make benefits available. I really worry about whether they will ever be able to support themselves at a decent level without help. When being smart, educated, hard-working and willing are not enough, what can we tell them?
Duchesse said…
Murphy: I have no one-size answer; J. is by choice oriented to trades-type work. My utilitarian views on university education inflame some friends and family and can be summarized by: "Art History BA? I hope you have a private income."
Duchesse said…
Susan: Each generation has yielded its share of opportunistic raiders. What I do notice is that in my youth most of the jobs my son has held would have been union jobs.
Mardel said…
I've known too many people who are laid off or retired then rehired as independent contractors with no benefits. Precarity is all to common in too many fields including higher education and health care. I've seen in the hospitals and doctors offices as well, as so many other places. It is not just young people.

I know of some attempts to organize some nurses aides and health care aides, but it is mostly unsuccessful. There have been bills presented to congress but they are easily defeated. I think businesses have a right to protect their bottom line, but I've also run more than one business and it is possible to be profitable and successful while still treating your workers in a reasonable and humane way.

This is one of those issues that won't go away until enough people refuse to accept it.
Anonymous said…
Employment/working conditions are recognized as a social determinant of health by the WHO ( and the Public Health Agency of Canada (

Would recommend "The Social Determinants of Health: The Canadian Facts" for a breakdown of the current situation and various policy implications/recommendations:
- Unemployment and Job Security (p. 17)
- Employment and Working Conditions (p. 20)

PS A Rick Mercer rant on unpaid internships:
Duchesse said…
catofspace: Thank you for the reference, an excellent study and downloadable for free!

I found one of the facts astonishing:
"Currently, only
half of working aged Canadians have had a single full-time job for over six months or more." (p. 18).

Enjoyed the Rick Mercer rant, too.

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