Making the shift: How part-time workers are organizing for better, more stable jobs

September 23, 2015

It’s hard to balance family and other responsibilities when your work schedule can change with little or no notice.

But this past July was a good month for making shift work better for working Canadians and their families.

Thousands of people working at major Canadian grocery outlets – where shift scheduling can be unpredictable and full-time hours hard to come by – are breathing a little easier after their unions bargained to make their schedules less unpredictable.

“I can plan forward now,” said Adriana Georgakopoulos, a young worker at Loblaws Superstore in Whitby, ON. “The change allows everyone to plan ahead for family events, doctor’s appointments, or school. The advance notice will be amazing for me, especially for school.”

Adriana was talking about new scheduling procedures that her union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local 1000A, won in bargaining this summer. Adriana, along with over 12,000 workers at Loblaws Great Foods and Superstores, ratified a collective agreement that made scheduling better.

The changes include more advance notice for work schedules. This will allow workers to actually plan for other commitments, whether they’re making time for school, family, or even a second job.

Also in July, Unifor members ratified a collective agreement for workers at 28 Metro grocery stores in the Greater Toronto Area that included increased notice of schedules and a guaranteed minimum number of hours.

This is how unions are supporting part-time workers who want to make things better – not just for themselves but for their families as well.

Erratic scheduling and the growth of precarious work

Unpredictable scheduling is on the rise in the restaurant and retail sector, adding to the trend of growing precarious work in Canada. Alongside the CLC’s call for a Better Choice, unions are mobilizing across the country to support workers with tools they need to end this exploitation.

What is unpredictable scheduling and why is it problematic?

Unpredictable scheduling can take a number of different forms. In some cases, employees are kept “on-call” and asked to stay available for a given period of time, but there is no guarantee that they will be called in for a shift. In other cases, shifts are scheduled but the employee must call in the day-of to find out if they are actually working. In other cases still, employees may be given a set schedule, but with very little advanced notice or too few hours.

Whichever the case, unpredictable scheduling is extremely challenging for workers both financially and personally. Part-time workers often receive insufficient hours, yet unpredictable schedules prevent them from holding a second job. Unpredictable scheduling also presents challenges for students who must balance school and work, and for parents who need to secure child care.

How prevalent is unpredictable scheduling?

Unpredictable scheduling is part of the broader category of precarious work in Canada.

Of all new jobs created in the past six years, nearly three-quarters are considered precarious. Over 19 per cent of Canadians work part-time, and nearly one million of these would prefer full-time hours. In Ontario alone, 63 percent of all workers who work in minimum wage jobs have to deal with shift schedules and work-times that change week-to-week. “In other words, unpredictable hours are the norm for most minimum wage workers…in Ontario today,” writes the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Alongside rising precarious work, Canada’s high unemployment rate, especially for youth, has made it easier for businesses to exploit this pool of unemployed workers by purposefully over-hiring workers and then keeping them part-time or on-call.

What do retailers say?

Some companies claim that scheduling “flexibility” reduces labour costs by giving them the ability to quickly increase or decrease staffing levels based on need. Others argue that unpredictable scheduling may actually be hurting companies’ bottom line by leading to higher turnover rates, lower employee morale and lower productivity.

In the US, workers have mobilized and retailers have faced political pressure over on-call shifts, which has encouraged a number of large companies, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret and The Gap, to commit to phasing out on-call shifts.

What unions are doing

Protections for scheduling predictability are weak under provincial and federal labour laws. This is why unions negotiate measures that are above and beyond what is currently law. The examples from Unifor and UFCW this summer are the latest demonstration of how unions are supporting workers who want to make things better.

Governments need to update the laws to balance the scales

Because workers have mobilized, some provinces are reviewing their labour laws in light of changing workplace trends. For example, the province of Ontario is in the midst of a Changing Workplaces Review, which looks at the Labour Relations Act and the Employment Standards Act, in light of new workplace trends, including:


  • The increase in non-standard working relationships such as temporary jobs, involuntary part-time work, and self-employment;
  • The rising prominence of the service sector;
  • Globalization and trade liberalization;
  • Accelerating technological change; and
  • Greater workplace diversity.

There’s so much more to do

The labour movement has been a part of these public consultations and hopes they will address the challenges faced by vulnerable workers.

But provincial leadership is not enough. Canadians need governments of all levels to follow the U.S. lead and demonstrate political will.

Equally important, Canada needs a federal government that stands with workers and will act proactively to develop a National Jobs Strategy to address the reality of changing workplaces – and guarantee a future of better jobs for all Canadians.