The Feminization of Precarious Work

Leah Bowes
JD Candidate, 2019
Masters in Public Policy, 2016

Precarious work constitutes an increasingly prevalent form of labour within contemporary Canadian society. A 2012 report released by the Law Commission of Ontario found “approximately 22 percent of jobs in Ontario that are characterized by low wages plus . . . [other] indicators of precariousness”[1]. The proliferation of precarious labour has substantial impacts for Canadian workers. However, precarious work is significant and bears further scrutiny as a form of feminized and racialized atypical work that simultaneously reinforces and is enforced by devalued gendered labour.

The rise of precarious work has become a central part of the experience and the organization of work in the new economy. During the post-war era, labour contracts conformed to the standard employment relationship (SER), characterized by labour arrangements where “the workers ha[d] one employer, work[ed] full-time, year-round on the employer’s premises, enjoy[ed] extensive statutory benefits and entitlements and expect[ed] to be employed indefinitely”[2].

The decline of the SER stems from increasing technological change and global market integration. Robert Kuttner argues that increased trade liberalization has exacerbated the outsourcing of production to low wage countries, therefore changing the geography of production and the rise of non-standard employment[3]. The decline in the SER has also been linked to increasing international competition and decreased rates of unionization. David Weil argues that the fissuring of the workplace, as a result of vertical disintegration of production, has led to decreased opportunities for workers to collectively organize and bargain, placing downward pressure on wages[4].

The decline of the SER and rise of precarious employment are closely associated with gendered divisions within the formal and informal labour markets. Precarious work constitutes a form of atypical labour in that it exists outside of the traditional SER. Leah Vosko discusses the feminized nature of atypical labour, particularly as it relates to unpaid reproductive and domestic care work. Vosko suggests that atypical labour has been and continues to be distinctly feminized, in that it is both predominantly performed by women and often characterizes female dominated sectors.

Guy Standing also acknowledges that atypical and precarious labour is highly and distinctly ‘feminized’. The term feminization is used pejoratively by Standing to indicate a form of labour perceived as of lower social value. Feminization, for Standing, represents a shift from traditionally masculine to traditionally feminine forms of employment and labour attachment, in that traditionally feminine work is characterized by low-pay, irregularity and insecurity[5]. Standing discusses the feminization of work as a shift towards flexible and precarious labour. According to Standing, typical female employment has increased relative to traditional masculine employment[6] , and larger segments of the population, who are both male and female, are increasingly forced into non-traditional and irregular labour.

The gendered and feminized nature of precarious and atypical labour is closely linked with the devaluation of unpaid domestic work. Precarious work, much like domestic labour, occurs outside of traditional labour markets and structures. This leads to the presumption that the atypical workplace “in the contemporary economy [is] a site of continuous availability, of boundaryless time and space, [and] of continuous availability at the service of the employer”[7]. This mirrors employment requirements increasingly made in precarious work, particularly that employees be on-call or readily available at their employer’s request. This expectation of availability suggests that employers do not see availability as work, despite the opportunity cost associated with on-call work arrangements, characteristic of both domestic and precarious work. Both atypical work and domestic labour have historical links to racial and gender status regimes, particularly within the United States.  As a result, precarious and care labour also share experiences and expectations of subordination, which facilitates the re-entrenchment of status. The varying power endowments created through historical legacies of social power have shaped the development of both care labour and atypical work.

As a result, it becomes clear that reproductive and precarious labour is closely linked, particularly by shared experiences of subordination and devaluation. This is reinforced through the limited and restricted access that women engaged in atypical labour, particularly racialized women, have to social support regimes. Specifically, social welfare schemes often tie publically sanctioned support, such as maternity leave or employment insurance, to traditional labour market attachment[8]. Women engaged in reproductive, atypical labour, are alienated from this system and are eligible only for welfare and other forms of stigmatized support[9]. This creates a complex dynamic particularly for racialized women not subject to the domestic norms of the American middle class who were expected to engage in both wage and care labour[10]. As such, it becomes clear that the racialization and feminization of care labour and atypical work is upheld and maintained not only through legal frameworks but also through broader public policy programs and administrations.

Alienation from social support schemes also characterizes precarious labour. Specifically, the rise of precarious work inhibits the ability of workers to access traditional employment benefits such as supplemental healthcare coverage and pensions[11]. The Law Commission of Ontario, in a report on precarious labour, revealed that precarious workers often face difficulties in accessing medicine, particularly prescription drugs, due to low wages and lack of workplace benefits[12]. The exclusion from SER benefits demonstrates that atypical precarious labour, like atypical care labour, is characterized by diminished access to social support schemes.

In conclusion, precarious work is an increasing and pressing phenomenon in Canada that has significant implications for the formal labour market. In understanding, analyzing and crafting legislative responses to growing precarious labour, the feminized and racialized nature of atypical labour must necessarily be considered. Atypical work has largely been performed by women and characterizes traditional feminine labour, such as domestic care work. This feminization is constructed and exacerbated by legacies of gendered and racial social power, which have functioned to construct atypical work outside formal labour categories, thereby significantly diminishing access to less stigmatized social supports, such as employment insurance. As such, policy and law makers must also acknowledge the ways in which atypical labour transcends constructs of market and non-market space and how these spaces are highly gendered. In acknowledging the feminization of labour, policy and law makers must also question whether precarious work actually constitutes a new phenomenon at all or if it simply characterizes the proliferation of ‘feminized’ work into the formal market and public sphere, spaces traditionally constructed as masculine.

[1] Law Commission of Ontario. (2012). Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Work: Final Report, 15.

[2] Cranford, Cynthia; Leah Vosko, Nancy Zukewich.  York University. Just Labour vol 3 (2003). Precarious Employment in the Canadian Labour Market: A Statistical Portrait, 7.

[3] Kuttner, R. (2013). Rethinking workplace regulation: Beyond the standard contract of employment (K. V. Stone & H. W. Arthurs, Eds.). Russell Sage Foundation.

[4] Weil, D. (2014). The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It. Harvard University Press.

[5] Guy Standing, “Global Feminization Through Flexible Labor: A Theme Revisited” World Development Vol. 27 No. 3, (1999).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 12.

[8] Lucy Williams, “Poor Women’s Work Experiences”, Labour Law, Work and Family. Joanne Conaghan and Kerry Rittich eds. Oxford University Press (2005).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gunderson, Morley. “Changes in the Labour Market and the Nature of Employment in Western Countries”, Stone and Arthurs, eds., Rethinking Workplace Regulation: Beyond the Standard Contract of Employment (2013).

[12] Law Commission of Ontario. (2012). Quick Facts About Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Work

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