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Contract Jobs, 'Flexible' Work Open Door for Employer Abuses

Group organizing to push for changes to employment laws to reflect new work reality.

Linda Givetash 6 Jul

Linda Givetash is a Vancouver-based journalist reporting on health and human rights across Canada and around the globe.

Multiple university degrees and more than five years of work experience haven't afforded Darcy Vermeulen the stability of a permanent job. Instead, he floats from one company to another, working in different offices and even from his own couch.

"People don't hire into permanent positions anymore, it's constantly a sea of contract after contract," said the 28-year-old, who currently works for a community engagement firm.

Vermeulen's situation isn't uncommon. Since the late 1980s, Statistics Canada data has documented a growing number of workers who are self-employed, working part-time, casually or seasonally.

And despite the perks in this type of flexible work, government failure to adapt worker protection legislation to the new reality has left many of those workers vulnerable to abuse by employers, said Irene Lanzinger, president of the BC Federation of Labour.

"This whole issue of part-time contract work is one that the employment standards were never developed to address," she said.

British Columbia's Employment Standards Act, for example, sets our employees' rights for everything from sick leave to timely paid wages. But for people working outside the traditional permanent job model, the act's application is murky and enforcement lacking.

The benefits of flexible employment -- opportunities to work with a diverse range of projects or companies, the chance to schedule work around child care and breaks between contracts -- attract workers. "That flexibility is wonderful and that's really conducive to my lifestyle right now," Vermeulen said.

But the lack of employee protection is a big disadvantage.

"I think of it in terms of being one bike accident away from not being able to pay my rent," Vermeulen said. "I don't have sick leave, I don't have health and dental benefits as a contractor, I don't have long-term disability through a particular employer."

Those concerns led Vermeulen to join the Urban Worker Project, a national organization advocating for more protection and benefits for people in precarious work.

The project -- which launched only months ago, with its first Vancouver event last week -- represents workers in all industries from trades to the arts to technology.

Employee versus contractor

One key issue is the lack of rights for "independent contractors," who are not covered by the Employment Standards Act because they are considered self-employed. That means workers don't have clear guarantees about sick or parental leave or overtime pay.

However, the act's definition of an employee is broad, and Lanzinger said some employers try to classify workers as independent contractors to avoid their obligations under the act.

Many workers who juggle a number of part-time jobs or contracts may still legally be employees, she said.

"We had a case in Surrey where a pizza delivery person, a teenager delivering pizza was told that he was a contract worker and so didn't have rights to overtime, didn't have rights to fundamental employment standards. But the employer lost because clearly this person was an employee," she said.

The ministry offers a fact sheet outlining the differences between contractors and employees, but Lanzinger said not all workers are educated on the laws or designations and simply trust employers to be honest.

Working without benefits

Contractors and freelancers are also left to calculate their own income tax and cover both the employee and employer share of contributions to government programs such as Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance.

This can be a hefty burden, with severe long-term consequences if workers don't keep good records, plan ahead and budget for the costs.

Andrew Cash, co-founder of the Urban Worker Project and a former NDP MP from Toronto, fought to give unpaid interns workplace protection similar to paid workers.

Recognizing there were still many gaps in labour laws when it came to precarious work, Cash said he wanted to continue pushing the issue on a national level.

"Our labour laws and our standards and our policies have been largely predicated on a workplace reality that is rapidly and fundamentally changing," he said. "I'm interested in seeing how we can benefit workers in this new economy so especially our younger workers can build a life that is stable and healthy and fulfilling and that we're not all scraping by ad nauseam."

The group is petitioning for changes to employment standards laws across the country to increase fairness for contract workers -- including right to overtime pay and employer contributions to the Canada Pension Plan.

Cash is quick to acknowledge that many unions and other organizations have already found solutions to some of these issues, particularly in offering temporary workers a chance to pay to participate in health and dental plans.

But without laws that empower contractors and freelancers, bad employers can get away with delaying payments or arbitrarily changing contract terms, he said.

"If you're in a contract situation and you're being abused or you're being unfairly treated... you really have no way forward that is not going to screw you up and screw your career," Cash said.

In B.C., the Employment Standards Branch offers workers a self-help kit to aid in resolving disputes with employers. Workers can also file formal complaints.

But both Cash and Lazinger said workers juggling a number of jobs or simply desperate for the work are reluctant to raise their voices.

"People are often fired when they complain about their rights being violated," Lanzinger said. "If you are a non-union worker you can be fired really easily, the boss has a lot more power than you do."

The labour federation intends to make the challenges of precarious work an issue in next May's provincial election, in addition to its ongoing campaign to raise the minimum wage.

Lanzinger said employment standards laws need to be updated and improved and enforcement agencies need more resources to address complaints.

Vermeulen said he hasn't had any conflicts with past employers, but would feel more secure with laws that offer contractors like him more explicit protection.

"I think a government that would be standing up for workers' rights would be the thing that would make a difference for me."  [Tyee]

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