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Lisa Cameron: My life as a contract worker

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Precarious work is on the rise in Canada, and Nova Scotians are feeling the effects. An increasing number of workers in the province are being hired on a temporary basis, often under fixed-term employment contracts, through temp agencies, or for brief assignments known as “gig work”. Unrealistic promises of future extensions often are used as a carrot. Provincial labour legislation is unprepared for this trend. 

Trying to escape gig-work, I left my position as a freelance writer to pursue a stable income. I studied online job boards and was eventually contacted by a temp agency with connections to some of Halifax’s largest employers. Within a week, I was hired for a position at a well-known insurance company as a customer service representative, along with a team of over a dozen others.

A week after being hired, and after giving notice to my previous boss, the position fell through.  This left me, and the other new hires, jobless. I was frantic and insisted that the agency find me another position; a contract had been signed, after all.

The agency arranged an interview for a different position with the same company. The role required a lot of math; something I do not enjoy. Out of desperation, I accepted the position and signed a five-month contract.

Two weeks into the job, my boss told me that my contract may, in fact, be just two months long. I was confused by this possibility because the contract signed was for a five-month period. There were no issues with my performance, he assured, but asked that I sympathize with the company’s budget issues. 

As my department endured staffing changes, my boss met with me bi-weekly to update me on the status of my employment.  “I wouldn’t search for another job yet,” he would say, hopeful that my patience would last a little longer. At one point, I didn’t know if I would be returning to work the following week.

The company routinely bragged about spending 4 million dollars on renovations to the floor I worked on. Each employee was given a new stand-sit desk, and the aesthetic evolved from old and out-of-date to something out of an IKEA catalogue. Despite their lavish spending, the company’s limited budget was blamed for the chronic job instability facing many of their workers.

At one point, the gig-economy itself was identified as the source of the company’s budget issues. The head of group benefits openly recognized that Canadian employers are no longer purchasing health plans for their employees because an increasing number of workers are being hired on short term contracts. Insurance sales were therefore suffering, and so were our jobs.

Consistent with the employment trend she described, most of my colleagues were hired by the insurance provider on short-term contracts and without health insurance. Stand-sit desks are great, but health benefits and job security are better.

The stress that accompanied my job uncertainty motivated me to leave, and my quest for stable employment continues.

My case was far from unique. Many workers are being lured into precarious employment with loose promises of contract extensions. A position’s short duration is often presented as an opportunity for the employee to determine if the company is a good personal fit. In reality, precarious work is of almost exclusive benefit to the employer, and leaves people stressed by job insecurity and without the power to negotiate better working conditions. 

The number of Canadian workers facing employment precarity is on the rise. In 2008, 12.2% of Canada’s workforce was hired on fixed-term contracts, compared with 13.3% today.  A recent study by Statistics Canada revealed that only one in five employees are hired on a full-time, permanent basis by companies with fewer than 20 employees.

Certain demographics are especially vulnerable to precarious work, including women, younger people, minorities, and immigrants, all of whom represent growing labour markets in Nova Scotia.  

As employment in the province becomes more precarious, the need for changes to labour legislation becomes more desperate.

See also: Lisa Cameron: In Nova Scotia you must work 48 hours before overtime kicks in

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