A disconcerting trend

The growth of precarity in Ontario’s education sector

Colour pencil illustration of a lady in workout clothes trying to climb to the top of an enormous pencil sharpener.

After the “sunny ways” results of the 2015 election, ending nearly a decade of the Harper Conservatives, those eminently shareable warm and quirkily nostalgic “Meanwhile in Canada” videos suddenly seemed more accurate than aspirational. But we cannot deny that when it comes to the Canada we tell ourselves we are, we have a lot of work to do.

Because today, Canadians are still living with entrenched inequality. Stagnant wages. Household debt. Declining union membership (and the protections that go along with it). Persistent insecurity. An eroded tax base. And CEO pay that, once again, is on the rise.

These factors, individually and collectively, have drastically lowered society’s expectations of what can be done to reverse this regression. And we don’t have to look far to see how many of these same factors have contributed to a climate of anger, fear and desperation, in both the UK and the US, with some fundamentally game-changing results.

It wasn’t always like this. In Canada, the social programs that were fought for and built in the post-war period did provide us with some insulation from the international trend towards growing inequality throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. While nowhere near perfect, there’s no denying that, for broad swaths of the population, we were making progress.

And then the infamous Paul Martin Budget of the mid-’90s gifted us with our very own neoliberal watershed moment. Funding for social programs was slashed, and structural changes altered how funding was allocated. Much of the heavy lifting was downloaded onto the provinces, which meant priorities were not consistent across the country. The social safety net began to show signs of wear, inequality began to accelerate and, over the next 20 years, the gap between the rich and everyone else continued to grow, fed by relentless attacks on unions that have eroded the working class.

Today, people are compelled to work harder than they ever have just to offset stagnant incomes and rising user fees, and to try to save for an unpredictable future. The employment rate has not budged since the worst of the 2009 recession, meaning any decrease in unemployment is as a result of people who have given up looking for work.

And the jobs that have returned are largely precarious and part-time—in fact, underemployed and marginally attached workers now outnumber unemployed workers (in far greater proportion among new immigrants and First Nations, it must be added). Nearly half of all Canadians say they are living paycheque to paycheque.

Currently there are six unemployed workers for every job vacancy. Some of the more back-breaking work is done by temporary migrant workers who have few of the rights granted to naturalized citizens, and are discarded when they are deemed no longer useful. And our EI system is not keeping pace with today’s job market, where 20 per cent of jobs are part time and 14 per cent are seasonal.

The issue is not that people “don’t want” to work. The issue is a lagging jobs strategy and an inadequate response to the trend towards part-time, temporary and precarious work.

The Finance Minister and the Prime Minister—also, incidentally, the Minister of Youth—argued that “job churn” is simply today’s reality that we need to “get used to.” But as a euphemism, job churn isn’t particularly accurate. It plays on the stereotype of young people drifting from job to job like carefree millennial bumblebees who on the one hand don’t want to be “tied down” and, on the other, “unreasonably” expect some semblance of financial security.

Precarity means more than changing jobs in quick succession—and in fact, job duration has remained quite stable across age groups since 1976. It’s also about working multiple jobs simultaneously. Or working in the same location through a series of annual contracts that you’re never sure will be renewed. Or never knowing how many hours you’ll get from week to week in the jobs you have.

Our grasp of the extent of this problem is a bit tenuous because, frankly, Canada doesn’t do an excellent job of measuring it. However, we know that a million Canadians have a second or third job. We know that about 900,000 work part time because they can’t find full time work, and another 390,000 work part time to accommodate unpaid care work—which falls overwhelmingly to women.

We also know that the trend toward precarity is growing: half of workers aged 25–65 in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and greater Hamilton area are in precarious, insecure work, an increase of 50 per cent over the last 20 years. And there are huge spinoff effects: an inability to plan for the future, depression, a sense of isolation, less time to be as involved in one’s community, to forge long-term relationships or even have enough time to get to know neighbours.

There are, of course, spin-off effects of precarious work that feed into the systemic nature of poverty: lower hourly wages than those of full-time workers, no supplemental health benefits; an absence of paid sick days; and a lack of training, which impacts one’s ability to find new and more stable work. Children are affected, too, because their parents are less likely to be able to pay for activities outside those provided by school. While insufficient child care is a significant problem for Canadian families in general, it’s a huge issue for workers in precarious employment. And there is other evidence of how insecurity and precarity changes how people socialize, give back to their communities, and relate to each other on a very tangible, community level.

This is significant because we’re talking about changing how communities, families, friendships and personal relationships work—or if they work at all. We’re talking about social regression at a very basic level. And we need to acknowledge that this will fundamentally change how all of us, but especially young people, comprehend notions of community and collective action.

But we also need to remember: precarity is not new. For women (particularly single moms), for the marginalized, for the racialized, for immigrants, precarity has been the norm for decades.
What is different, however, is the degree to which it’s infecting sectors and segments of the population that were once considered immune.

We know that temporary employment—seasonal, term, contract or casual—has been on the increase in Ontario, rising from 9 per cent in all sectors in 1997 to 13 per cent today. Over that same period, temporary work in the entire Ontario education sector (that includes post-secondary) has risen from 14 per cent in 1997 to 23 per cent in 2016 (Labour Force Survey). In other words, having roughly one quarter of education sector employees as temporary has been “locked in,” in part because of the explosion of insecure work in the post-secondary sector through the use of sessionals and precariously-employed instructors.

But there is no question these trends are being replicated throughout the K–12 years. According to Statistics Canada data (Labour Force Survey, Custom Tabulation, 1997–2015), for secondary school teachers 34 years and younger, the number who are temporarily employed has increased from about 15 per cent to anywhere from 25–30 per cent in recent years. For secondary school teachers 35 and older, the rate of temporary employment has remained fairly consistent (generally from 5–10 per cent).

Interestingly, there has been a much greater spike in temporary employment for younger teachers in elementary schools, especially since 2008 (from 10–15 per cent to 20–25 per cent). For older teachers (with the exception of the period from 2004–2009 when it reached a peak of 12 per cent), there has been a slight increase from 4 to 8 per cent.

This trend is not limited to teachers. Elementary and secondary school educational assistants (EAs) (34 years and younger) in temporary employment grew from about 20–30 per cent to 30–40 per cent, but for older educators has generally stayed within the 20–30 per cent range. For custodians there has been a significant increase in temporary employment for younger workers, from 10–20 per cent to 30–35 per cent. Older custodial workers experienced some variation, but the rates remained mostly in the 10–15 per cent range. And for those in administration, the rates of temporary employment remained fairly constant over the past 20 years, although rates were higher for younger workers (25–30 per cent compared to 5–10 per cent).

In K–12, based on surveys done by the Ontario College of Teachers (Transition to Teaching, 2015)—which, while not scientific and which do not specifically speak to the experience of non-teaching staff, are an indication of trends we need to keep an eye on—we know that, for each year going back about a decade, more new teachers are unemployed.

We know that they take longer to move from daily supply assignments to actual contracts, partial and full time. And we know that as almost-new teachers continue to look for more daily supply assignments as they try to achieve a degree of permanence in the system, the competition that very new teachers face is even stiffer.

According to the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT), attrition rates are increasing; one in six teachers do not renew their membership in the college within the first five years of licensing. Significant numbers of teachers allow their license to lapse. And more teachers in good standing indicate they are unsure if they will be teaching five years from now.

The new requirements for teachers’ college—a two-year program instead of the previous one year—will change things. For one, it will apparently reduce the number of annual graduates, reducing the size of the recruitment pool. But what it will also do is significantly increase the amount of student debt many new teachers will graduate with. This is on top of whatever’s been accumulated after a four-year undergraduate degree. So this is yet another indication of how precarious employment, education underfunding, and the trend towards ever-higher tuition fees and the accumulation of student debt are related, particularly when it comes to reinforcing intergenerational inequality.

Most first-year teachers work part time in professions outside of teaching to supplement their teaching income (or in some cases to replace it altogether). And although the market for newly licensed teachers has improved—though, again, this is OCT feedback from a non-scientific survey, so that may not in fact be entirely the case—less than half of new Ontario graduates reported full employment in their first two years, with a significant number not reaching full employment for four years. Little wonder that “teacher underemployment remains persistently high.”

According to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey (Custom Tabulation), the trend to taking on additional employment is being replicated by EAs as well. Younger EAs are now more likely to have a second or third job (from a high of 90 per cent with only one job, down to anywhere between 70–80 per cent who only had one job). The numbers for older EAs were much less significant. And while there was a drop in the number of elementary teachers with only one job, the drop was much more pronounced for younger teachers, suggesting that more younger elementary teachers are having to take on a second or third job. (Unfortunately, numbers for secondary school teachers are not available.)

According to the OCT, teachers are also reporting significant levels of piecework teaching and/or precarious employment contracts with unpredictable hours. Some of this, apparently, is because of the new rules for supply and permanent entry positions, but not all. However, these new teachers in daily supply roles or who are unemployed, not surprisingly, miss out on the school-based professional development, mentoring, evaluations from principals, orientation, and engagement and interaction with other educators. In other words, these new and less experienced teachers are missing out on the tremendously helpful yet less quantifiable aspects of working in a more stable and cohesive working environment.

There’s no question that this undermines how school communities work together, which has implications for all education workers—whether or not they themselves are precariously employed.

Precarity is a symptom of how people and their work is devalued on an international scale. But it’s also a disease that infects how we—as neighbours, as workers, as community and labour activists, as family members and friends—interact with each other, support each other, and make progress together. It’s neither new nor inevitable: devaluing workers, undermining those supports that provide people with the opportunities to collectively demand better, and attacking public institutions as old fashioned or outmoded is hardly an innovative strategy. And in spite of how our elected representatives have chosen to suddenly acknowledge and glibly repackage it, precarity is never something we have to put up with, or adjust our expectations to accommodate.

Because quite simply, and with no apologies to Margaret Thatcher (who famously suggested that “there is no alternative” to an unfettered market economy), we should also remember that TINA also stands for This Is Not Acceptable.

About Erika Shaker
Erika Shaker is the Director of Education and Outreach for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and Executive Editor of Our Schools/Our Selves.

1 Comment on A disconcerting trend

  1. Elizabeth Elliott // June 20, 2017 at 1:31 pm // Reply

    These statistics are, indeed, disconcerting. I am a retired Ontario secondary school teacher ( 2011). The last few years of my career I witnessed this decline first hand with the attacks on our Union, OSSTF. I firmly believe that we MUST invest in education, particularly at the elementary school level. Our children are our most valuable resource. I know we as a society keep saying this….but it’s time to ‘put our money where our mouths are’! Also, we need to invest in parenting education. I see too many kids loaded up on junk food and glued to an electronic device partly because parents are exhausted from working 2-3 jobs as cited in this article.

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