York professor leads development of a new research tool

A recent workshop based at York University involved an international who’s who of experts in the field of precarious employment. Led by Atkinson Professor Leah Vosko, Canada Research Chair for Feminist Political Economy, the "Comparative Perspectives on Precarious Employment: Developing Common Understandings Across Space, Scale, and Social Location" workshop brought together more than 40 researchers from around the world to discuss the increasingly unstable nature of employment and to develop a framework for a new research database on comparative perspectives on precarious employment.

Left: Leah Vosko addresses workshop participants

From Nov. 1 to 4, researchers working together with graduate students from York University, McGill University and Carleton University met and discussed papers that examined developments and trends in precarious employment in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, the UK, Korea, Japan, Spain and the US.

"The concept of precarious employment includes forms of work characterized by low income, job insecurity, a lack of control over the labour process, limited social benefits and statutory entitlements, and high risks of ill health," said Vosko.

Previous research conducted by Vosko and her collaborators has shown a growth in insecure or precarious employment in the Canadian labour market and elsewhere. As precarious employment reshapes employment trends in Canada and around the world, there is an increasingly urgent need for a research tool enabling comparative analysis and providing access to data for use by an international community of researchers. In June 2007, Vosko, a professor in the School of Social Sciences in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, received infrastructure funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to develop a new Comparative Perspectives Database (CPD).

"The social innovation opportunities that exist through the mobilization of knowledge are not yet widely understood. Bringing the study of precarious employment together with an innovative social science research tool, like the Comparative Perspectives Database, is an excellent example of this type of activity and promises to improve our understanding of the changing nature of employment," said Stan Shapson, York vice-president research & innovation, in his address to workshop participants.

As part of the workshop, participants also focused on developing a framework for the new database, which, when completed, will be linked to the Gender and Work Database (GWD), a Web-based research tool built collaboratively by over 50 experts from Canada and around the world. The GWD project is currently housed at Atkinson and accessible through the York Libraries. Once complete, the new CPD will also be accessible through the York Libraries.

Above: Workshop participants focus on developing the criteria for the Comparative Perspectives Database

As part of their work in shaping the CPD, participants discussed different ways of seeing (conceptualizing), understanding and responding to the spread of precarious employment, and explored potential solutions to technical and conceptual difficulties in pursuing comparative analysis of labour market insecurity. Their contributions will be instrumental in developing the database, which when completed, will provide a venue for advancing common understandings of precarious employment across space, scale and social location. 

“The workshop provided an opportunity for members of a global research community to meet face-to-face. The [existing] GWD is core to a virtual research community. It provides a nucleus from which researchers with similar interests can extract primary and secondary research that subsequently stimulate new insights and perspectives," said York’s University Librarian Cynthia Archer. "I found it fascinating to listen to studies of precarious work from countries around the world. The libraries can play an important role in organizing and providing enduring access to the research data and output that is shared and produced by members of this research community.

"Leah [Vosko] is dead-on in her recognition of the need to expand research from a Canadian perspective to a global one," said Archer. "I could see tremendous opportunities for learning and problem solving by sharing insights on different issues, contexts and solutions.”

Right: York Vice-President Research & Innovation Stan Shapson addresses the workshop participants

One senior analyst from Statistics Canada, Nancy Zukewich, commented on the importance of the GWD in preparing the ground for the CPD to be developed. She stressed its importance for "developing concepts to see inside the silences and to better understand the intersections of precarious work and social relations of inequality."

"Having presenters from around the world talking about the different contexts surrounding precarious employment in their respective countries was of particular interest to me," said  Andrée Bedard, another analyst from Statistics Canada, "… and it is a reminder that notions and issues surrounding labour market can have totally different definitions and policy implications from one country to another."

"Events like this are critical as they provide an opportunity for researchers to connect with other researchers and with policy-makers," said Atkinson Associate Dean Research Kelly Thomson. "This degree of integration between researchers and stakeholders enhances the relevance of research findings and mobilization of new knowledge." 

For more information, visit the Gender and Work Database Web site. To learn more about Vosko and her research, click here.