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Francis Fong is the chief economist, Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada

Much has been written on the problem of precarious work. A growing body of evidence is revealing that full-year, full-time work is increasingly giving way to more precarious arrangements that lack the same pay, benefits and protections that were standard just a few decades ago.

Recently, public debate has focused on rethinking how existing programs can support this more tenuous work force. But there is a surprising oversight. The fact is, we do not know how many people are affected by precarious work. Canada has no formal definition of it, so no data are collected. This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed – but how do we help precariously employed Canadians if we do not even know who they are?

In fairness, precarity is not easily defined. The sheer variety of precarious situations makes finding common ground difficult. To compensate, we use broad terms such as "uncertain" and "insecure" in our descriptions to avoid excluding anyone.

But, data on work that is generically "uncertain" are, in practice, too vague to be useful.

The data we do have focus mostly on the kinds of work associated with precarity – non-standard arrangements such as part-time, temporary and casual work. But these data were never designed to capture the nuances of precarity, nor would every person working a part-time or temporary job be considered precarious.

Consider a minimum-wage part-time worker. This individual's hours are volatile and they struggle to make rent some months. While more hours are preferable, they cannot work full-time because they also attend college. Now consider a well-off retiree with a good pension who works part-time to keep busy.

These two individuals may work the same hours for the same wage, but we would probably not consider both to be precarious.

The problem is that the data we currently collect on part-time workers have no way of distinguishing between the two.

At best, these data allow us to talk about those who are at risk of being precariously employed. And, perhaps surprisingly, non-standard work does not seem as big a problem as some would suggest. The proportion of Canadians working part-time has not moved since the early 1990s. The share of working temporary jobs has grown by just two percentage points in the past 20 years, and its share remains small at around 13 per cent.

These observations, however, mask important underlying shifts. As an example, our recent analysis shows that the share of part-time work has fallen in most sectors, but has risen sharply in just three: information, culture and recreation services; educational services; and accommodation and food services.

The increase in temporary work is more broad-based, but those same three sectors also record the largest increases.

This is disconcerting. Information, culture and recreation services and accommodation and food services pay some of the lowest wages in the country, while educational services has the lowest average hours worked of any sector.

In other words, while non-standard work may not be a rapidly growing problem over all, it is becoming a bigger issue in sectors that may feature more precarious characteristics.

We have reached the limits of what we can learn about precarious work from existing data.

What we need now is a definition that we can all rally around – one that breaks down precarious work into its most basic, concerning elements – and hard data on the issue.

Data that enumerate, for example, those who face high levels of volatility in working hours and income, part-time workers not given advance notice of their working hours, short-term continuous contract workers uncertain about their future employment or workers fearful of losing their jobs for speaking out against employer abuse.

To do better research and design better policies, we need more targeted data and the federal government should fund Statistics Canada to collect just that.

Precarity could very well be a defining feature of the future labour market. It is about time we figure out what that really means.

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