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Women and Precarious Employment: My Thoughts

An Overview of the Bigger Picture, and What Can Be Done to Alleviate the Issue

Photo courtesy of Wade Rathke: Chief Organizer Blog

In recent years, we’ve been hearing the term “precarious” being used to describe what has become the current state of employment for many people, particularly women (especially in marginalized communities).

In this case, precarious employment can be seen as analogous to an unbreakable cycle many women find themselves in, forcing them into survival mode. This financial instability impacts every aspect of their lives, contributing to stress, low self-esteem, depression, and various illnesses that can even give rise to addictions.

Women with families often have to take on up to three short-term jobs on average; by that point, their anxiety is at an all-time high, because not only is balancing multiple jobs not always feasible, but they are also often waiting for what might be next after those jobs expire. The roll-on effect it has on their families, such as the correlation it might have with their children’s performance in school, adds to the stress. It even affects single women and women without families, since they only have themselves to depend on.

This precarity became apparent during the economic downturn, when employers needed a way to deal with stressors and burns — in other words, a low-cost approach to achieving labour. Thus, precarious employment tends to be circumstantial — what is happening, and how the situation is being handled.

However, this descriptor certainly applies to the employees as well. If they cannot motivate themselves to look for work, or better work, because they are worried about paying off expenses, it becomes perpetual — the previously mentioned unbreakable cycle. There are more socioeconomic layers here than what most people realise.

We also see instances of women who become forced into low-paying, precarious work from otherwise stable positions. But why does this happen?

In order to answer that question, we must also consider two other questions: 1) What happens when people higher up struggle? and 2) How does that affect the rest of us?

The employers’ struggle comes in various levels; permanent and entry-level positions are diminishing as a result of the demand for more productivity on a lesser budget, regardless of whether those positions are in an established entity or a startup. Specifically, this cut reflects the employers’ desire to recruit employees capable of assuming roles they aren’t necessarily educated in so that less money is spent on resources and training.

Enter contractual work — the work most people don’t take. And even when they do end up taking them, the contracts more often than not don’t actually relate to each individual’s skill level or wage expectations. With that resolve comes a shift of expectations, whereby people are having to settle for less and make a change of plans.

There are cases where even survival jobs are difficult to come across; ideally, people want jobs that will get them out of poverty — or prevent them from becoming impoverished — or positions similar to their previous ones. However, they cannot always secure higher level work due to factors such as not meeting a particular skill level, and it can take time before they are qualified for that work.

Too much critical experience learned in school and a resulting lack of practical work experience is a common occurrence among students and young people nowadays. They are willing to work anywhere, but cannot get hired because they need the experience and credentials. To make matters worse, an unstable work history makes candidates look unreliable even if they are not.

Much of this may stem from the fact that these candidates are not focusing on work they are actually capable of producing and are passionate about. It is understandable that people would want to pursue their passions, and while money for additional schooling may not always be (entirely) feasible, there comes a point where taking that test of commitment may be the better option regardless of how long it takes. It is always important for people who find themselves in this position to know what their options are in terms of financial support.

Another aspect people have begun discourse around is delayed retirement. Older workers are expressing concern about keeping their jobs — which are those now-rare permanent positions — and returning to the workplace. This, combined with heightened competition/oversaturation as well as the fall of large markets, blocks access to students, youth, and (marginalized/immigrant) women who may very well be qualified for these different jobs.

This challenging labour market is taking its toll on people’s hope that the situation may change for the better. On a wider scale, employers themselves are responsible for the shift primarily because they are the ones who need to establish better working conditions. This means that they need to reduce or adjust the current types of jobs and salaries they are offering in order to accommodate present socioeconomic conditions. A reevaluation of goals and prioritized investments is necessary.

Governments, and related organizations to a lesser extent, tend to be more reactive and passive; nonetheless, they still carry a substantial level of responsibility in terms of governing employers and shaping policy. This is not only to alleviate stressors for (potential) employees, but also for many businesses — especially smaller ones — that struggle to pay their wages as well.

The nonprofit sector is also not foreign territory for precarious employment; through campaigns it pushes for good work as well. But this should not be the stopping point for action. As we transition out of the economic downturn, we should have the administration and the public be interactive with one another, and have this convergence translate to policymaking.

Guidelines for fair salaries and decent work are not just to make policies appear, however, but to also accept changes in peoples’ lives and adapt to the times. It is not simply a legal issue, but rather a proactive, collective response, as there is only so much the law can do. There are far too many specific cases to be encapsulated by only one or a few laws.

What else can (marginalized) women take away from all this? There are certainly a lot of ways for them to either break the cycle or take their career to the next level. On the one hand, it might not be a good idea to dismiss contractual work, because it is crucial to learn to be adaptable to the current work environment.

On the other hand, staying in the same field requires looking at a wider scope. Relocating is not always possible — or practical — and help may be closer than we think. Counselling and supporting each other — whether at employment service centres or at any coffee shop — can prove to be extremely helpful. If one person feels they are unable to find what they are looking for, chances are someone else in their circle might be able to point them in the right direction.

Browsing for jobs online is busywork; it’s not actually a productive and stimulating way to find work. People drain themselves online and don’t receive much feedback, if at all, from generating so many searches. Postings can also be suspicious, especially from unfamiliar companies. If the job sounds desirable, it is wise to do research and ask for opinions — even directly contact associates, if they have their contact information available online.

Isolation is never a good idea; working together aids in improving social skills, revealing networking opportunities, and making those connections. This is an ideal opportunity to learn how to build resumes, portfolios, reference lists, and interview skills. The benefits for ongoing, active learning and interaction are evident, as connecting with other women in the similar situations can lead to a better understanding of recruitment processes, thus making job hunts easier.

Most importantly, this form of solidarity may take away self-blame for not knowing what to do, and build trust in the idea that the work environment doesn’t have to be as inaccessible as it currently is.

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