Precarious employment is on the rise in Canada (Zhang & Zuberi, 2019), and library work is no exception (Canadian Union of Public Employees, 2017, 2018). According to an ongoing analysis by the author and his colleagues, 38% of BC jobs posted on the Partnership Job Board from November 2017 to March 2019 were precarious in some way. Together with anecdotal observation, this data shows that BC libraries, especially those in the Lower Mainland, rely significantly on precarious positions to maintain their workforces.
The International Labour Organization (2012) defines precarious work as involving “uncertainty as to the duration of employment, multiple possible employers or a disguised or ambiguous employment relationship, a lack of access to social protection and benefits usually associated with employment, low pay, and substantial legal and practical obstacles to joining a trade union and bargaining collectively” (p. 27). In BC libraries, it most often takes the form of contract or on-call work, though permanent part-time positions may also result in precarious situations for some people.
The nature of precarious employment presents a number of barriers that can prevent precarious workers from fully and positively exercising their various freedoms. Unless otherwise cited, all these barriers have been attested to in interviews with BC library workers conducted and summarized by the author and his colleagues (Henninger, Brons, Riley, & Yin, 2019). Addressing these barriers will stand to not only improve conditions for workers, but also to have ripple effects on the services they provide and the communities they serve.
Precarity is a barrier to mental and physical health.
Uncertainty causes stress, and precarious work is nothing if not uncertain. In general, precarious work is associated with poor health outcomes (Lewchuk, Clarke, & de Wolff, 2011; Benach et al., 2014). Being in jobs without guaranteed long-term pay or sick leave can impact physical health, as people work on-call shifts rather than taking the pay cut or overextend themselves across multiple jobs to make ends meet. Precarity also affects mental wellness (Rönnblad et al., 2019), as multiple jobs and shifting schedules compound the mental load and time demands of managing commitments and relationships both inside and outside of work. Especially when someone is the sole breadwinner, the stress and financial insecurity that comes with precarity can correlate with mental health issues (Jang, Jang, Bae, Shin, & Park, 2015).
Precarity is a barrier to planning for the future.
Short-term plans can be disrupted by things like the need to come in for a shift on short notice, and long-term planning is more difficult when people don’t know how many shifts they will get next month or if they will be able to find work after their current contract. Being precariously employed can prevent people from pursuing significant life choices that they would otherwise like to make, such as starting long-term relationships, having children, or moving to a new city (Golsch, 2005).
Precarity is a barrier to gaining work experience.
When contract employees are hired in the short term or chain together successive contracts, they may be unable or ineligible to serve on long-term committees, projects, and task groups. When on-call workers spend all their hours on desk, they often do not have the chance to be as involved with projects and programming as permanent employees. Structures such as these mean that experience is more slowly and unevenly gained, and they inhibit workers from deeply inhabiting their positions and gaining knowledge not only of the duties involved, but also the norms and values of the broader library.
Precarity is a barrier to equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Many surveys and studies have shown that precarious workers both in and out of libraries are disproportionately likely to be people of colour, women, and/or LGBTQ+ individuals (Cranford & Vosko, 2006; Bernhardt, 2015; Lewchuk et al., 2015; CUPE, 2018). While this fact might look like diversity in a numerical sense, the temporary, part-time, and/or stressful nature of precarious work means that diversity on its own is not enough. More of a commitment is needed, as precarity also works against equitable treatment and inclusion.
As Alaniz (2019) points out, hiring on a precarious basis allows organizations to benefit from people’s work and experience and appear diverse without committing to giving them stable jobs. As well, interviewees spoke of not feeling included in or connected to their organizations and often compared themselves to workers in stable employment relationships as examples of how they did not receive equitable treatment.
These and other pressures contribute to burning out and dropping out, suggesting that the composition of the field will continue to look like and be decided by those who have the resources to manage those pressures and hold out until they get a permanent job. On top of the undergraduate and graduate degrees necessary for many kinds of library work, precarious work after graduation is another way in which the library field maintains its status quo as a disproportionately white, middle-class profession.
Precarity is a barrier to good service.
While there are many factors that can affect people’s ability to engage in service work, precarious work can absolutely be one of them. Their attention may be split between other jobs, the job search itself, and other stressors. Turnover, irregular schedules, and temporary placements make it harder to build ongoing relationships with patrons and coworkers, gain the institutional knowledge that is one part of good service, and share their own strengths in full. Precarity creates unique forms of disappointment when a worker has a rewarding interaction with a patron but doesn’t know when they will see each other again or hears ‘I’ve never seen you here before’ from another patron when they have in fact been there for months.
Precarity is a barrier to strong organizations and societies.
For all the reasons above, precarious work has the potential to make libraries weaker than they could be otherwise. Some interviewees spoke of an opportunistic and uncommitted mindset where working precariously made them or their colleagues ready to leave at the first sign of stable employment. This mindset may not be what employers want from their workers, but if libraries do not invest in their employees by working to foster cultures of wellness, growth, and inclusion, why should those workers feel a sense of investment back?
Precarity also stands to weaken the library field and society at large. It can and does contribute to people leaving the field or having to find side jobs. It makes beneficial activities like volunteering, socializing, and pursuing education that much more difficult to participate in (Lewchuk et al. 2015; Premji, 2017), and it weakens democracies by making it harder to sustain the necessary commitments to public life (Näsström & Kalm, 2015).
Overall, precarious work presents a variety of barriers to personal, professional, and societal well-being. The barriers are not absolute–achieving all these things while precariously employed is certainly possible–but precarity makes it that much more difficult. Given these barriers, what can be done to counter their effects?
The extent to which precarity is embedded in work structures and systems means that actions taken at the individual level cannot be enough. Resilience and self-care are helpful coping mechanisms, but they run the risk of shifting responsibility onto the individual worker at the expense of the effort it takes to build collective solutions.
Power to create positive change rests not only with groups such as unions, but also with those responsible for setting the terms of employment. As such, managers and employers should demonstrate that decisions about precarious positions have considered these barriers and the evidence of their effects. Although what this change looks like will depend on specific contexts, it is possible to identify some general starting points.
One important step is to create conditions for open and honest communication within as well as across library systems. Many precariously employed interviewees felt that speaking out about the negative aspects of their work would come across as complaining or ungrateful and hurt their chances of getting shifts or future contracts. Others expressed pessimism that talking would change anything due to a perception that management had already made up their minds. At the same time, people in libraries are increasingly beginning to talk about precarity and connect it to related issues (e.g. Agostino & Cassidy, 2019; Lacey, 2019), providing examples of how we can come forward with personal experiences if it is safe to do so.
Support precarious workers.
Precarious work is unlikely to ever disappear completely, but there is room for its negative outcomes to be better addressed. As long as it exists, efforts to offset those negative effects and help precarious workers feel more included will be necessary. Examples include offering regular check-ins, chances for professional development, and work plans. Securely employed workers can use their stability to advocate for precarious employees’ needs, and precarious workers can build solidarity with each other where possible.
Rethink job design.
Based on conversations with interviewees and observations of real changes in BC libraries, actions to rethink job design could include: regularizing blocks of on-call shifts, turning on-call positions into contracts, making contracts into permanent positions if someone’s been in them for a long period of time, and giving precarious workers chances to gain experience despite their time constraints.
Although working precariously can be stressful and demoralizing at times, it is important to remember that difficulty in dealing with a precarious labour market is not due to individual failure. It is the result of material societal structures that reproduce these barriers in favour of economic efficiency and a flexible workforce.
When discussing precarious labour, we should not perpetuate narratives with the vocational awe named and described by Ettarh (2018), which prioritizes professional ideals over effects on library workers’ lives and uses the sanctity of libraries to justify underemployment, job creep, and related issues. Instead, it is time to push back against narratives of libraries doing more with less and create employment relationships that meet the needs of everyone involved.
The negative outcomes of precarity typically outweigh the positive ones, but addressing them will stand to improve the quality of life, work, and libraries. By reducing and removing these barriers, we can create better working conditions and a stronger profession for everyone.
Alaniz, D. (2019). Reflections on temporary appointments and Innovation/diversity culture in libraries and archives. http://laborforum.diglib.org/2019/08/14/reflections-on-temporary-appointments-and-innovation-diversity-culture-in-libraries-and-archives/
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Ettarh, F. (2018). Vocational awe and librarianship: The lies we tell ourselves. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2018/vocational-awe/
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Henninger, E., Brons, A., Riley, C., & Yin, C. (Forthcoming). Perceptions and experiences of precarious employment in Canadian libraries: An exploratory study. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 14(2). https://doi.org/10.21083/partnership.v14i2.5169
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Lacey, S. (2019). Job precarity, contract work, and self-care. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.21083/partnership.v14i1.5212
Lewchuk, W., Clarke, M., & de Wolff, A. (2011). Working without commitments: The health effects of precarious employment. Montreal: McGill–Queen’s University Press.
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Procyk, S., Lewchuk, W., & Shields, J. (Eds). (2017). Precarious employment: Causes, consequences and remedies. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.
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Ean Henninger is currently on contract as a liaison librarian with Simon Fraser University Library. He has also worked on call in public libraries.