At 40, the self-employed worker we'll call Natalie is one of a growing number of Canadians shut out of the world of stable, full-time work.

She has three bookkeeping jobs, she's watching every penny and still she makes just half of Canada's average industrial wage of $49,500. She's had to move back home with her 10-year-old daughter because she can't find full-time work.

'It became a way of keeping down wages, and companies became addicted to it.' —Wayne Lewchuk, McMaster University professor

"The way I'm going, I'm never going to get my own place for my daughter and I won't be able to afford a car; I won't be able to afford a dentist appointment for my daughter, or something she may need, braces," she told CBC News.

Like an increasing number of Canadians, she's in precarious work, without security, benefits, vacation pay or the prospect of a pension.

People in temp positions, part-time workers and contract workers all fall into the insecure employment category. And the number is growing.

Secure jobs a vanishing breed

A study by the United Way and McMaster University in 2013 found 18.3 per cent of the workforce in the Hamilton-Toronto area had insecure employment. And only a little over half — 50.3 per cent — had standard, full-time jobs.

jobs board

Where are the full-time, permanent jobs that allow workers to get on with their lives? (CBC)

Across Canada, the category of self-employed workers increased almost 45 per cent between 1989 and 2007, according to the Statistics Canada labour survey.

Precarious workers aren't just minimum-wage employees with irregular hours, says Wayne Lewchuk, a professor at the school of labour studies at McMaster University. They're also high-tech workers hired for projects, accountants who must seek one job after another, social-service sector workers employed by temp agencies and university lecturers hired on contract.

A lot of these jobs used to be secure, Lewchuk points out, but not anymore.

"It became a way of keeping down wages and companies became addicted to it," says Lewchuk, who has been studying precarious employment for seven years.

There's no career path for temp or flex workers — they lurch from one job to the next, get neither training nor benefits nor paid leave and are expected to save for their own pension.

Sitting by the phone

"Often they don't know their schedule until the day before or their schedule changes at the last minute  They don't know where they have to be until just before their shift," Lewchuk says.

Over a working life, the penalty for precarious work is financial — those in insecure employment earned about 46 per cent less than workers in the same field who had standard jobs.

But on a day-to-day basis, the toll is often personal.

"All of this makes sustaining a household and a family difficult," Lewchuk says.

If they think they're going to be sitting by the phone waiting for a call to work, they often can't enrol their children in extracurricular activities or make it to the parent-teacher conference, Lewchuk says. There's no option to coach Little League or volunteer at the local seniors' home.

"People that are in precarious work delay making significant life plans," says Micheline Laflèche, with the United Way, who is part of a group of researchers updating the 2013 report.

"They don't feel confident enough to establish an ongoing relationship or have children."

Socially isolated

Men in particular may feel socially isolated, she says.

"Men were the ones who were much more likely to be in standard employment relationships [permanent full-time work], and they built their social relationships through their work," she says.

"They're no longer in those kinds of jobs; men are more likely to have no one to talk to."

Laflèche says people in insecure employment tend to be less engaged with their community, a trend that could weaken the fabric of Canadian life.

"It hurts our democratic commonality and our democratic values because people don't feel like they belong. We don't have a healthy society," she says.

In the face of the rise of precarious work and the expansion of low-paid work, the Ontario government has said it will review employment standards and the labour code. 

Laflèche and the United Way will be among the parties trying to suggest innovative ways to address precarious work.

She argues Canada's employment insurance system, which is a federal responsibility, is geared to a world where people had an industrial job for years, and if that was eliminated, they got another permanent job, a scenario that now rarely happens. She recommends a more realistic approach to employment insurance for part-time or contract workers.

Changing labour laws

She points to some of the ways other countries are addressing precarious work:

  • A minimum wage "premium": an extra payment from employers for low-wage workers who don't have benefits or secure work.
  • "Flexicurity": Denmark has a social contract between employers, the government and individuals that helps people who don't have secure work. Opportunities for training are provided when they can't find work and there is support, similar to employment insurance, but which kicks in even if people haven't worked for the required minimum time.
  • Parity legislation: There are variations on this throughout the European Union with laws that ask employers to give temporary or contract workers the same pay, vacation and benefits as permanent employees doing the same jobs.
  • Creating better training opportunities for those in marginal employment.
  • Providing more flexible child-care solutions (instead of always full-time, five days a week, allowing part-time child care).

Businesses have also put forward voluntary solutions, among them temp agencies or groups of employers combining forces to provide full-time hours to part-time workers and better social inclusion in work events for temp and part-time workers.