Toronto temp agencies trap immigrant women in cycle of poor pay: Report
A new report by Ryerson University warns of a looming public health crisis caused by precarious work.
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Precarious work and temp agencies are trapping immigrant women in Toronto in a cycle of poor pay and illness, creating a “public health crisis” with long-term implications for the region’s economy and health-care system, a new report warns.
Documenting the experience of new Canadians in the GTA, some of whom were refugees, the study found that many were forced to resort to temp agency work that exploited their “vulnerability as refugee claimants who desperately need to survive as well as take care of family members overseas.” Some working mothers took home just $3 an hour after child-care costs and pay deductions from their temp agency.
“It’s modern day slavery,” said Tsering Paldon, who helped conduct research for the report, to be published Monday by Ryerson University. Paldon is a Tibetan immigrant herself who worked in the low-wage restaurant sector before earning her diploma as a community service worker.
“There is no doubt in our mind, the study reveals the extraordinary toll that precarious work is taking on the physical and mental health and well-being of these women workers,” added Winnie Ng, Ryerson’s Unifor-Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy.
“There are also cascading effects on their families, their children and their communities. These effects will have long-term consequences in terms of costs for our economy and social fabric and in particular, for the public health system.”
The study, entitled “A Public Health Crisis in the Making,” conducted in-depth interviews with 40 women living in Toronto. Some 75 per cent were in some form of precarious work, including part-time, on-call, and temp agency jobs. Most worked as personal support workers, or in industries such as food processing or retail. In total, 65 per cent of participants had more than one job.
The women in the study said their workplaces were often unsafe due to exposure to chemicals, lack of protective equipment and training, workplace violence and high rates of unreported injuries. They reported physical symptoms such as headaches, early onset of menopause, nose bleeds, high blood pressure and skin boils and rashes.
“With temp agency work as the new norm in workplaces, agency workers particularly in food-related work and care service work are working under more hazardous working conditions without any access to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and Occupational Health and Safety Act protection,” Ng said. “As just-in-time labour, they are often 'used', abused and disposed of since they can no longer carry out their duties.”
Torstar News Service has previously profiled the link between precarious work and ill health, as well as the poor working conditions faced by temp agency conditions.
The Ryerson study also found that the women’s poor physical health often affected their mental well-being. Thirty-seven-year-old mother Tsering Tsamchoe told Torstar she was only able to find temp agency work at a potato factory when she arrived in Toronto in 2011, despite being a trained accountant fluent in English. She said the long factory days — sometimes up to 16 hours — took a toll on her body, and she believes the stress of insecure work also prompted the onset of crushing migraines.
“Nothing is in your control,” she said. “You have that feeling of fear all the time.”
The study also points to the double burden faced by women who work erratic hours while also trying to care for their families and obtain Canadian citizenship. It argues that those stresses are compounded by weak workplace protections, including the lack of paid sick days in Ontario and temp agencies that “are getting away with questionable and often illegal practices.”
“They are the ones who take advantage of vulnerable people and exploit them completely,” Paldon said.
The report comes as Ontario reviews its employment and labour laws with an eye to providing better protection for precarious workers. The report makes several recommendations for reform, including paid sick days, mandatory two-week scheduling notice, stricter regulation of temp agencies, a fairer and more accessible workers’ compensation system and stronger enforcement of employment standards and health and safety laws.
“The growing phenomenon of precarious employment is akin to a virus,” Ng said. “It infects and damages the health of women workers who are trapped in the cycle of precarity.”