As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, it’s inevitable that we’ll have to return the patterns and structures of ‘normal’ life. While this may mean a return to indoor activities, it also means many Canadians are returning to working in-person and many students will be looking for part-time or temporary jobs during the school year.
For those who were fortunate enough to keep their jobs, or find remote employment, the return to pre-COVID expectations of work may seem like a natural progression. However, for the estimated 38,000 Canadian students who were unable to find employment this past summer, and the more than 100,000 who experienced unemployment in April 2021, the prospect of rejoining the workforce may seem daunting and unattainable.
As the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the wealth inequality gap across global societies, service workers and non-unionized employees are more vulnerable than ever to exploitation and ill treatment. Students, women, migrant workers, and racialized communities are among the populations most likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic, or be employed precariously, situations that can lead to exploitation and have negative consequences on your mental and physical health.
Precarious employment is a term that applies to workers who fulfill the needs and duties of permanent jobs but are denied the benefits, pay, and job security of full-time employees. The International Labour Rights Forum maintains that precarious work is on the rise and that companies globally are relying on precariously employed workers more and more. This is done, in part, to help reduce costs since many companies do not provide part-time and contract workers with health care, overtime wages, and long term employment security.
Examples of precarious employment include jobs like couriers, restaurants and retail work, freelancers, and short-term contract workers.
From Peasants to the ‘Precariat’
However, it is crucial to understand that precarious work is not a new phenomenon, but rather that it is essential to the functioning of global capitalism. As Juan Sebastian Carbonell writes about the history of precarity in France:
“The idea of a stable, long-term job is, in fact, something relatively new, when we look at the history of capitalism as a whole. These measures were possible only due to the strength of the labor movement.”
Today, Carbonell asserts, precarious work is more common than ever due to the way that governments and companies have operationalized worker independence and notions of individual “mobility” and “liberty” to justify changing the rules and regulations of the labour market. Rather than promoting and valuing collective bargaining agreements and the stability that full-time employment can offer, discussions of labour trend towards promoting the apparent flexibility, creativity, and freedom that contract and freelance work allegedly provide. This, however, is a false flag which only contributes to an increasingly precariously employed workforce.
If you’ve ever worked while attending school, you’ve likely experienced employment precarity. Whether you’ve needed a job with flexible hours, or one that could be done remotely, or just something in the short term to make some quick cash, the likelihood is that you’ve had a job where you did not feel empowered, safe, or respected.
As more businesses reopen across Canada, there will be more job opportunities for students looking for part-time work. Here are some important tips to keep in mind if you are looking for a job in an industry that relies on precarious employment…
1. Know your rights
Whether it’s standing up for yourself in an interview, asserting your right to refuse unpaid overtime, or understanding what is and is not appropriate to be asked to do in a workplace, knowing your rights as a worker is crucial to finding a safe and stable job. While an awareness of your constitutional and provincial rights may not always give you the power to materially change a toxic workplace, it can help you assert your autonomy and empower your voice in an exploitative workplace and hopefully be a tool to improve your situation in the future.
2. Try to look for co-ops and union positions
While this may seem like an obvious solution to finding a job that is not exploitative, and may even seem like a pipe dream, looking for work with a co-op or a union is still a worthwhile endeavour. Co-operative and union positions tend to prioritize worker well-being (financial, physical, emotional well-being) and provide a support net through solidarity and collective bargaining agreements. While both options typically require paying dues or contributing extra time to your workplace, the upsides of working with a union or co-op are significant and they can ensure safe and stable employment.
3. Prioritize your work-life balance
With so many non-essential workplaces and employees moving to remote work during the COVID pandemic, it became a challenge for many to strike a healthy work-life balance. In fact, in many countries it was reported that most people were working increased hours at home compared to when they were in an office. If you find a job where you are working remotely, it is crucial to prioritize your own mental well-being by establishing boundaries and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Even in the most positive and supportive work environments, it can be easy to become overwhelmed, overworked, and experience alienation. Prioritizing your mental well-being seems to be one of the more popular slogans of remote work, but it nevertheless holds true, especially for students trying to balance work, school, and a personal life.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Lastly, if you’re struggling to find a job and starting to turn desperate, don’t be afraid to look at websites from universities and labour organizations to help you out. Concordia University and many other schools have specific resources aimed at helping students navigate workplace issues and can direct you to sites and classifieds to find jobs where you are treated fairly and provided with stability and support.
While precarious employment and its dangers may seem labyrinthian, just remember that you’re never going through it alone. Most of us reside in positions ripe for exploitation and disempowerment, but there can be solidarity across struggles and communities of support can be established in any place at any time. As students, we have access to resources and communities which can uplift us and help us navigate the difficulties of precarity; don’t be afraid to use them. Solidarity forever!
Concordia University. “Housing and Job Resource Centre.” N.D., https://www.csu.qc.ca/services/hojo/
Cook, Dave. “Work-life balance in a pandemic: a public health issue we cannot ignore.” The Conversation, February 26, 2021, https://theconversation.com/work-life-balance-in-a-pandemic-a-public-health-issue-we-cannot-ignore-155492
Godfrey, Neale. “The Pandemic Has Worsened the Wealth Gap.” Kiplinger, May 17, 2021, https://www.kiplinger.com/personal-finance/602801/the-pandemic-has-worsened-the-wealth-gap
Hagan, Shelly. “Black, Asian workers see biggest jobless rate spikes in Canada.” Bloomberg News, August 7, 2020, https://www.bnnbloomberg.ca/black-asian-workers-see-biggest-jobless-rate-spikes-in-canada-1.1477050
Press, Jordan. “Canada added 419K more jobs in July, racialized workers had higher jobless rate: StatsCan.” Canadian Press, August 7, 2020, https://globalnews.ca/news/7256830/job-numbers-july-2020-coronavirus/
Sharp, Morgan. “Summer job market for Canada’s students gets off to slow start.” The Star, June 4, 2021, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2021/06/04/summer-job-market-for-canadas-students-gets-off-to-slow-start.html?rf
Wheatley, Gillian. “Young people forced to get creative as COVID-19 disrupts summer job plans yet again.” CBC News, May 8, 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/youth-employment-summer-jobs-1.6018151