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The dangers of precarious employment

Injured on the job himself, Alberto Almeida brings first-hand perspective to a study of workers with low-paying, undependable employment.

Alberto Almeida knew that as an auto mechanic’s apprentice he was expected to pay his dues doing dirty and heavy work. But that dues-paying ended in a disabling back injury at the age of 17, cutting his career as a mechanic short.

Now Almeida is a UTSC undergraduate sociology student studying the problems immigrants face with precarious employment. Working with Patricia Landolt, associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology, he has conducted studies into working conditions for precariously employed immigrants in the Black Creek area – his old neighborhood – and discovered that his experience and that of his family isn’t unique.

“For a lot of people, even though they may be working in pain, they choose to continue in order to make ends meet,” Almeida says. “You have people who actually break down and cry because they’re frustrated, they don’t feel like there’s a way out … I know what it’s like, and it’s not easy at all.”

Although the people Landolt and Almeida studied often have university degrees and professional experience back home, they get stuck in insecure, low-paying jobs that cause them emotional and physical pain. The health worries and stress can be so bad that they actually prevent people from finding better work.

“Once they’re stuck it’s exceptionally difficult to climb out. A lot of them only hope that their children will end up doing better. A lot of them just give up on themselves,” Almeida says.

Almeida is the son of immigrants from Ecuador and Chile. He had always loved cars and was happy to be hired as a mechanic’s apprentice at the age of 16. But one night he and another apprentice were cleaning the garage and tried to move a heavy transmission by themselves. The other apprentice dropped his end, and Almeida went down with an injury to his lower back.

The injury is permanent, and ended any hope of a career as a mechanic. It made many other jobs impossible for him, and even made it hard to get hired even for jobs he could do physically. Almeida’s mother was supportive, though, and encouraged him to go to university. He took her advice and came to UTSC, where he majored in both sociology and philosophy.

By his third year he was eager to get involved in research (“I’m a hands-on guy,” he says), and kept trying to convince Landolt to take him on.

“He chased me around for a few months and finally I said, ‘Fine, you can participate,’” Landolt laughs. She took him on as a volunteer, but found him so valuable that she soon gave him a paid position.

The research project he worked on was designed to examine in detail how immigrants in the Black Creek area cope with job insecurity. Previous research had shown that precarious work or underemployment can have serious health effects that are even worse than the effects of unemployment.

Almeida worked conducting interviews with people from seven different language groups. The interviewees worked temp jobs, home care work, fast food work, or other jobs with low wages, uncertain hours, and little job security.

Those interviewed reported health problems and stress. They often had to juggle more than one exhausting job, working without enough sleep, afraid to call in sick for fear of being fired. The stress often led to fights in the family, which also had negative effects for the children in the household.

“There’s a huge sense of insecurity, a huge sense of instability, and a great level of impermanence that comes with your position. You can be disposed of any day of the week. Why? Because there’s another person who will come in that’s just as desperate who needs the job as well,” Almeida says.

Although many people showed great resilience – Almeida remembers a pair of Peruvian sisters who owned their own home and were raising their children successfully despite their precarious employment – the struggle takes its toll.

It can cause stress-related problems like anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, headaches and sleep disturbances. Perhaps worse is the “downward, cumulative spiral” that occurs, and keeps qualified people from getting better jobs, he says.

Almeida’s own mother suffered through the same situation. Although she had a university degree from Chile, she had to work low-paying jobs. Almeida says that even as a boy he noticed the incongruity between his mother’s university diploma on the wall, and the Burger King cap she put on to go to work every day.

His mother’s case has a happy ending -- she was able to go back to school and now works as an English teacher and research coordinator.

For Almeida, the work has given him valuable experience. He participated in the UTSC Summer Scholars Program, and he and Landolt are also working on a paper that they intend to publish. Now in his fifth year, he’s applying to graduate school.

Landolt said that when Almeida came into the project he was passionate and engaged, and because of his personal experience was able to relate well to the people they were studying. Working on the project has taught him how to take that personal experience and transform it into scholarly research.

“Alberto’s pretty amazing. He’s become a really good researcher,” she says.

The research project report can be found at:

© University of Toronto Scarborough