Precarious Life and Basic Income
Christine has numerous jobs, some paid and some unpaid. She was ineligible for federal COVID financial assistance and Employment Insurance because she quit her main job when her employer refused to enforce COVID safety protocols, and she felt her health and safety were at risk.
Christine is a 63 year-old woman living by herself in Northern British Columbia. She had a well-paying job in communications in Toronto but lost her job in her 50s when she became ill and could no longer work. She lived on her savings for several years, and after her savings were depleted, she was homeless. She travelled overseas, teaching English for awhile until she found work in British Columbia, which enabled her to buy a modest home. She is a trained professional technical writer who constantly applies for jobs in her field. Sometimes she gets an interview, but she believes her white hair puts off potential employers.
At the time of the interview, Christine had a part-time job at the local abattoir for $17 per hour, which she appreciated. In the summer, she had a part-time job at the Farmer’s Market. Christine also had unpaid work with the local Animal Shelter, was on the Board of Directors for a couple of local organizations, and is the creator of a long standing weekly podcast about cycling and urban transportation, as well as poverty in Kingston, indigenous sovereignty, and at-risk dogs and cats. Her most recent podcast is called The Cookie Jar: Grass Roots Recipes for Change.
Christine is an energetic and enthusiastic contributor to her community. She is concerned about humans’ impact on the planet and worried about climate chaos. She has embraced voluntary simplicity and is content with her modest standard of living. But poverty weighs her down. She is open about having days when she couldn’t get out of bed, when she struggled with thoughts of suicide. For her, an income of about $2000/month would relieve her stress and anxiety about buying food and paying the bills. Basic income would give her a sense of dignity and some recognition for her unpaid work in the community. With the improved mental health that the security of basic income promises, Christine knows she could be an even better community member, providing social and emotional supports to her neighbours and contributing to a stronger, healthier community.
Stringing together a few part-time jobs to try to make ends meet, when she would prefer to have a permanent, full-time job, Christine can be said to be “precariously employed.” McMaster University’s PEPSO (Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario) Studies, the largest and most important research study of precarious work in Canada, shows that precarious employment has been steadily increasing and has become a “new normal.”
Precarious work refers to employment that does not have security or benefits. It is often part-time, poorly paid, on call or with unexpected work schedule changes, and less likely to be unionized. Those who work in precarious jobs often have to hold more than one job at a time and are afraid to raise issues of employment rights because it may negatively affect their future employment. Precarious workers are more likely to live in poverty than those who have traditional secure employment, but on top of the poverty, the insecurity, instability and unpredictability of precarious employment creates significant stress, anxiety and difficulties, from paying the bills to socializing with family and friends. Precarious employment has harmful effects on individuals, their families and community involvement. Those who are precariously employed are more likely to be women, racialized groups and those without a university degree.
The McMaster PEPSO researchers have called for a basic income floor to help level the playing field for those who are being left behind. Their subsequent research on Hamilton participants in the Ontario Basic Income Pilot (OBIP) showed that those who had employment when they enrolled in OBIP were able to move to higher paying, more secure jobs with better working conditions and the possibility of future opportunities. Those working when they enrolled in OBIP reported greater improvements to their well-being than those who were not, suggesting the significant effects of the stress of insecurity on health.
Basic income promises an end to the stress of insecurity caused by precarious work. It won’t fix precarious work per se—that needs government intervention and regulation. But just like the Hamilton participants in OBIP, basic income would allow people to leave poorly paid, insecure jobs with unsafe working conditions without worrying about complete loss of income. That in itself might be enough for precarious labour employers to improve the conditions of employment.
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