One of the key responsibilities of government departments of labour is to establish laws to promote the prevention of work injury and illness and then take steps to promote compliance with these laws. Obtaining regulatory compliance with limited resources for education and enforcement has always been challenging. Changes in the labour market are making it even more so.
Since the 1970s, global competition in product markets, the increased mobility of capital across borders, new technologies, and slower rates of economic growth have contributed to changes in labour markets and employment relations in Canada and other industrialized countries.
Some employers have responded to competitive pressures by adopting staffing practices that they believe enhance their flexibility, such as implementing more time-limited contracts, outsourcing work and using temporary employment agencies to meet staffing needs. Accordingly, the share of “standard” jobs – full-time work on the employer’s premises for an indefinite time period – has been shrinking. The percentage of workers who are unionized has also been shrinking, associated both with the trends noted above and the shift of employment from the manufacturing sector to the services sector.
These changes mean more workers face job and/or financial insecurity in terms of pay, benefits and employment continuity. Some refer to this as “precarious work.” Not all non-standard workers are in a precarious position; some, such as highly-paid self-employed professionals, thrive in today’s labour market. However, the increase in non-standard employment is associated with an increase in precarious work.
This growing insecurity in employment poses risks for the health and safety of the workforce. In terms of worker illness, a key concern is the effects of chronic stress. Studies have shown that exposure to chronic stress is associated with a range of psychological and physical problems such as anxiety disorders, depression, coronary heart disease and cancer. Trends in work intensification and reduced job and financial security have been identified as key sources of ongoing stress.
Also of concern is the increased risk of work injury associated with precarious employment. There is evidence that workers with precarious jobs have relatively high rates of injury, increased exposure to hazards, and poorer knowledge of occupational health and safety (OHS) regulations.
The lack of power to assert one’s rights is a key concern associated with precarious work, and one that OHS regulators need to be particularly sensitive to. In some cases, difficulties may arise because workers are unaware of such basic rights as the right to know about workplace hazards, to participate in solving workplace health and safety problems, and to refuse work they believe is unsafe. As new entrants to the labour market, recent immigrants and migrant workers may be particularly vulnerable in this regard.
Even when workers are aware of their statutory rights, some may be reluctant to complain when these rights are not adhered to by the employer because of the risk of losing their jobs. A recent Canadian study documents the reluctance of temporary agency workers to speak up when they see hazards in the workplace, out of concern that their work assignment will be terminated. The decline in the rate of unionization also contributes to workers’ reluctance to speak up.
The prevention of work injury and illness among vulnerable workers cannot rely on the actions of the workers themselves or on visits by government inspectors in response to incidents or complaints. It requires active measures by regulators to obtain compliance with the law. This may involve awareness campaigns, user-friendly information on workplace rights and responsibilities, the public identification of serious or repeat offenders, and, especially, proactive audits of employers.
More active measures would help responsible employers by making it more difficult for the minority who evade the law to continue to do so. Resources are scarce, but a more proactive approach, which can be focused on sectors where the injury risks are greatest, will pay off in the long run with better compliance.
In Ontario, the Expert Advisory Panel on Occupational Health and Safety, which reported at the end of 2010, recognized the need for better protection of vulnerable workers. Its recommendations included: improving protection of workers from reprisals for exercising their rights, developing information products to raise awareness of OHS among vulnerable workers, and carrying out more proactive inspections at workplaces where vulnerable workers are concentrated.
Departments of labour across the country will need to take steps along these lines in order to respond to the challenges presented by the nature of employment relations in today’s labour market.