Objectives of the ESD

The Employment Standards Database (ESD) is an online interactive research and teaching tool that brings together unique user-friendly statistical tables with a focus on employment standards, awareness and enforcement of these standards, as well as a library of relevant and up-to-date secondary research resources in this area, and a thesaurus of related terminology. A sister site to the Gender and Work Database (GWD) and the Comparative Perspectives on Precarious Employment Database (CPD), the ESD includes five modules pertaining to different aspects of employment standards (ES):

  1. wages and compensation;
  2. working time;
  3. complaints and enforcement;
  4. leaves, vacation and holidays; and
  5. job (un)certainty.

Each module provides a different entry point for exploring central themes surrounding employment standards in four high-income industrialized economies, each of which has experienced declining rates of unionization in recent decades and thus a growing reliance on employment standards as the exclusive source of labour protection: Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States.

This introduction offers an overview of the conceptual approach to analyzing employment standards in a comparative perspective that informs the ESD as a whole. Against this backdrop, it then introduces the ESD’s five interactive modules.  

For an explanation of our chosen statistical approach, and an outline of the design principles behind the creation of harmonized variables used in many statistical tables, please see our page on statistics resources.

Key Questions of the ESD

Four overarching questions orient the ESD:

  • What are the core principles and components of employment standards and their enforcement in the contexts under study and how do these differ across the national and sub-national jurisdictions of the ESD?
  • What is the nature of employment standards awareness, violation, evasion, and erosion among workers and employers across contexts?
  • How are workers in different social locations affected by employment standards violations? How is employment standards awareness related to social location?
  • How can employment standards, their violations, and their awareness be consistently measured within and across different jurisdictions? What can be learned from existing survey research, and what are the notable gaps and silences?

Central Concepts of the ESD: Employment Standards, Social Minima, Universality and Decency

Employment Standards legislate minimum terms and conditions of employment in areas such as wages and compensation, working time, holidays, vacation and leaves, and termination and severance of employment, among others. Employment standards apply to most workers in a given jurisdiction, though employment standards often contain exemptions and/or special rules that narrow their application. Together with occupational health and safety, human rights, and workers’ compensation legislation, employment standards are a principal source of workplace protection for a growing number of employees, especially those in precarious jobs. With declining rates of unionization in many industrialized labour markets, employment standards take on increased importance.

Three normative goals underlie employment standards. The first is the promotion of social minima, that is, minimal conditions of employment below which no employee should fall. The principle of social minima reflects a concern to establish a floor of workplace rights and conditions that are meant to mitigate potential forms of exploitation that may arise from the unequal power relations between employers and employees. The second principle underlying employment standards is universality. Implicit in the principle of universality is the recognition that employment standards are universally beneficial (Davidov, 2014), and that their selective application can undermine their fundamental normative objectives. The third principle underlying employment standards is decent work, which underscores the need for employment standards to prevent detrimental working conditions and other workplace abuses for those who have no other means of workplace protection (International Labour Organization, 2008). These normative goals contribute to, and are reinforced by, the policy objectives of assuring basic labour standards (e.g., hours of work, overtime compensation, child labour restrictions), and mitigating against power imbalances and resulting abuses.

Theoretical Context

The ESD’s conceptual approach to employment standards is informed by critical political economy, and draws particular insights from feminist political economy (Vosko, 2019). In contrast to neoclassical economics, which views markets as self-regulating entities, a critical political economy perspective sees markets, including labour markets, as “socially embedded institutions” (Graefe, 2007, p. 20; see also Peck, 1996). According to critical political economists, markets are sustained through the exercise of political and economic power and public policies, and shaped fundamentally by social relations of gender, class, race, ability, and citizenship and the contradictions, tensions, and conflicts they reflect and engender. Feminist political economists, in particular, have noted the interconnections between forms of paid and unpaid work in capitalist social relations. What feminist political economists refer to as “social reproduction,” i.e., the often unpaid work of caring for others, is central to the organization and reproduction of capitalist economies, and shapes gendered divisions of labour in both the household and the labour market (Vosko, 2002; Bezanson & Luxton, 2006).

Broadly speaking, feminist and critical political economy provide insights into the interrelation between employment standards and the structure and organization of labour markets. Feminist political economists have revealed the bifurcated (and deeply gendered) structure of labour law and policy, with a core division between employment standards and standards established and enforced via collective bargaining. That is, they have linked the inferior floor of labour protections provided by employment standards (compared to collective bargaining) to the marginalized status of those to whom employment standards were designed to apply – namely, women and children (e.g., Fudge, 1991; Fudge & Tucker, 2004; Sangster, 1989; Thomas, 2009; Ursel, 1992; Vosko, 2010a; Wikander, Kessler-Harris, & Lewis, 1995). In the knowledge that production for the market is dependent on the work of social reproduction, feminist political economists have also offered insights into the dynamics behind the historical fact that employment standards legislation was drafted initially to apply to women and children presumed to depend on a male breadwinner with access to a union and a complete social wage (Vosko, 2010a). Since its inception, feminist political economy scholarship has opened space for paying greater attention to not only non-unionized workers (and their working conditions) but to unpaid work and how it shapes women’s patterns of labour force participation as well as the protective regimes to which they are subject. It has also provided a foundation for exploring how the organization and administration of employment standards reproduce labour market inequities on the basis of racialization and immigration (Vosko, 2019). In Ontario, Canada, a key jurisdiction in the ESD, one example of the reproduction of such inequities is found in employment standards exemptions that reduce the scope of employment standards coverage for agricultural and caregiving work, both forms of work that are often performed by migrant workers in temporary foreign worker programs (Thomas, 2010 & 2016).

Feminist and critical political economy scholarship has also illuminated the rise of precarious employment in the current context, a development that is itself linked to employment standards. While precarious employment and “non-standard” forms of employment are not necessarily synonymous, there is a relationship between them because, historically, labour laws, and policies have taken the standard employment relationship, defined as a full-time permanent employment relationship where the worker has one employer, works on the employer’s premises, and has access to statutory entitlements and benefits, to be the norm (Vosko, 2010a). For this reason, forms of employment differing from this model have come to be linked with greater precariousness. For example, and as illuminated in the CPD, the sister database to the ESD, temporary employment tends to be more precarious than full-time, permanent employment because workers in such employment often lack access to the full range of workplace benefits such as health and pension plans, and also face higher degrees of uncertainty over the continuation of their employment. Part-time employment can be more precarious than full-time employment because it is accompanied by inferior terms related to workplace seniority and benefits. And the absence of labour protections is a central characteristic of most self-employment, whether or not a worker is solo self-employed or has employees.

Workers also experience precarious employment differently according to their social location. An extensive body of feminist and critical political economy research demonstrates how inequalities related to gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship and immigration status, ability, and age shape people’s experiences of precarious employment. For example, migrants from formerly colonized and/or exploited parts of the global South are often concentrated in the lower rungs of the labour market in the global North. Because of women’s disproportionate share of unpaid caregiving labour, women are disproportionately concentrated in part-time and temporary employment characterized by dimensions of precariousness. Risks associated with precarious employment including poverty, unemployment, and ill health are borne disproportionately by women, racialized workers, and newcomers (Charlesworth & Heron, 2012; Fudge, 1991, 2009; Peck, 2001; Thomas, 2009; Vosko, 2010b). As noted above, these workers are more likely to be reliant on the (secondary/substandard) regulatory protections of employment standards.

The modules of the ESD are informed by feminist and critical political economy scholarship on precarious employment that has identified multiple dimensions of labour market insecurity that are related to employment standards, including: low income that is insufficient for a worker to maintain themselves and dependents (see the wages and compensation module); a lack of control over the labour process, which leaves workers with little ability to influence working conditions and pace of work (see the working time and leaves, vacation and modules); limited access to regulatory protections such as collective bargaining or the floor of workplace rights associated with employment standards (see the complaints and enforcement module); and uncertainty around the continuation of employment and risk of job loss (see the job uncertainty module).

The connections between employment standards and the rise of precarious employment have meant that employment standards are part of the contested terrain of work in the contemporary period. Over the last few decades, a key focus of critical political economy scholarship on work and labour has been the rise of “flexible” and insecure forms of employment, and, concomitantly, the increasingly unequal balance of power between employers and employees, fostered through new information and communication technologies, progressively more flexible and globally dispersed modes of service and goods production, along with increasingly mobile financial capital. Against this backdrop, critical and feminist political economists trace how governments across many industrialized market economies actively foster “flexible” work arrangements through neoliberal reforms to labour market policies, including restrictions on collective bargaining (Panitch & Schwartz, 2003), the retrenchment of income security programs designed to provide a modicum of protection (McBride, 1992; Peck, 2001; Porter, 2003; Vosko, 2010a), and reforms to ES, occupational health and safety and anti-discrimination law and policy (Fudge, 1991; Fudge & McDermott, 1992; Thomas, 2009; Tucker, 2013) that heighten workers’ exposure to commodification and market regulation both individually and cumulatively. A critical political economy lens helps to illuminate how employment standards have become a major terrain of struggle given the direct role of these social minima in shaping the nature of employment in a given jurisdiction. Looking through this lens clarifies how employment standards are shaped by struggles between business interests seeking minimal legislative intrusion into employers’ affairs and workers’ advocates pursuing improved standards and renewed enforcement (Cranford et al., 2005; Thomas, 2009).

ESD Resources

The ESD includes five modules:

  1. wages and compensation;
  2. working time;
  3. complaints and enforcement;
  4. leaves, vacation and holidays; and
  5. job (un)certainty.

Each module is organized around a set of research questions presented and elaborated in a conceptual guide, along with a demonstration. These modules are not meant to be comprehensive; rather, they provide different entry points to explore themes of employment standards in comparative perspective where further analyses are possible given the available data.


The ESD library is a searchable citation database of relevant theoretical and empirical works including working papers, books, book chapters, journal articles, government documents, and statistical tables. The library is fully integrated with other ESD tools, allowing users to augment their understanding of the conceptual guides and the statistical tables. Each citation includes expert keywords, allowing users to explore the material through simple keyword searching, field searching, or complex Boolean searching. The ESD also includes a tutorial on how to use the library.


Serving as a bridge between the library and statistical components, the ESD thesaurus identifies core concepts derived from scholarship on employment standards. The thesaurus has three central functions. First, it provides a controlled vocabulary for searching the library, helping researchers link the statistical tables and the library resources. Its second function is descriptive—that is, it describes the language of the field, and illustrates relationships between terms, concepts, and ideas. This second function aims to facilitate comparison across national states where a number of terms that can be used to describe similar phenomena and the use of the same term to mean different things in different contexts are common. The thesaurus provides descriptors to assist the user in researching employment standards at multiple levels across and within the jurisdictions covered by the database. Finally, its third function is prescriptive in that it seeks to communicate how creators of the ESD understand certain ideas, and the connections between them. The ESD includes a tutorial on how to use the thesaurus.

Statistical database

The ESD statistical tables allow for a comparative analysis of employment standards across different jurisdictions. Researchers can explore the degree to which workers in different contexts are covered by employment standards and how the extent of coverage is related to features of precarious employment and to workers’ social locations – including sex/gender, citizenship, and age. The tables are meant to be used together with the thesaurus of concepts, library of resources, this introduction, as well as the five ESD conceptual guides. The latter include descriptions of variables that proxy, or stand-in for, employment standards coverage and social relations. Inquiring into a multidimensional phenomenon such as employment standards coverage in different places and contexts, at different scales, over different phases of the life course raises fundamental questions about comparison. Some questions are practical – for example, what forms of employment or dimensions of labour market security, and social locations, and jurisdictions is it possible to measure using available statistical data? Other questions are conceptual, and indeed normative. Is it justifiable to compare employment standards coverage to different forms and dimensions of precarious employment sharing similar attributes? If not, what are the appropriate modes of comparison? In response to these types of questions, and to allow users to make their own determinations, where possible, the ESD attempts to provide statistical tables containing variables reflecting national definitions and a variety of harmonized variables (i.e., variables integrating existing data from different surveys such that the data are reshaped to become comparable across countries; Clement and Prus 2004).

Sites Related to the ESD

Gender and Work Database (GWD)

The GWD is composed of the six integrated and interactive modules: precarious employment, health care, unions, migration, unpaid work, and technology. These modules are not intended to be comprehensive; rather, they represent different entry points into the study of gender and work. Each module contains a brief description, a conceptual guide, and demonstration using statistical tables.

The GWD is suitable for researchers with varying levels of expertise and with different needs, ranging from primary analysis and testing of research questions to secondary analysis. In other words, the database can be used to obtain “basic” information on a topic or to examine a variety of complex social relations. Additionally, via its library and thesaurus, the GWD is connected to its sister website, the Comparative Perspectives on Precarious Employment Database (CPD), which provides users with the resources to conduct international and comparative research and​_ which users may also wish to explore.

Comparative Perspectives on Precarious Employment Database (CPD)

The Comparative Perspectives on Precarious Employment Database (CPD) brings together a library of relevant sources in the field, user-friendly statistical tables, and a thesaurus of concepts – all related to research on precarious employment. Users can analyze multidimensional tables to explore and compare the contours of precarious employment in 33 countries, including Australia, Canada, the United States, 27 EU member countries and three non-EU member countries.

The CPD is designed both for researchers and students and can be used as an interactive classroom teaching tool. The introduction provides basic information on the CPD’s conceptual approach to precarious employment in a comparative perspective, an explanation of CPD methodology, and an outline of the design principles behind the creation of harmonized variables used in the statistical tables. These principles are further developed and demonstrated in three interactive modules: forms of precarious employment, temporal and spatial dynamics, and health and social care. These modules represent different entry points into the study of gender, work and precarious employment.

Related Links

Gender and Work Database:

Comparative Perspectives on Precarious Employment Database:

Closing the Employment Standards Enforcement Gap:

Australia at Work: (archived from original page, now offline)

Awareness, Knowledge and Exercise of Individual Employment Rights:

UK Data Service – Employees’ Awareness, Knowledge and Exercise of Employment Rights Survey:

Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers:

Government of Canada Labour Program:

Ontario Ministry of Labour:

United Kingdom Employment Rights Act:

United States Department of Labour:

Australian Government Fair Work Ombudsman:

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