Statistics resources

Survey Research on Employment Standards

There are few empirical surveys that take employment standards as their focus, in Canada or internationally. Notable examples of large-scale population surveys that include information about employment standards in an international context include the ‘Australia at Work’ Survey (2006-11), the ‘Employees’ Awareness, Knowledge and Exercise of Employment Rights’ Survey (UK, 2000 & 2005), the ‘Unrepresented Worker’ Survey (UK, 2004), the ‘Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers’ Survey (US, 2008), and the “Enquête évaluation de l’application de certaines dispositions de la Loi sur les normes du travail” (Quebec, 2004 & 2010). In addition, several small-scale surveys by community organizations capture information about employment standards, but non-probability sampling methods limit the generalizability of their findings (JobWatch, 2004; Workers Action Centre, 2011).

Persistent methodological challenges associated with survey research on employment standards relate to locating and contacting workers in precarious jobs, respondents’ discomfort around disclosing workplace problems, and respondents’ often limited knowledge of the formal employment standards provisions.

The Challenge of Engaging Workers in Precarious Jobs

People in precarious working situations can be difficult to locate and survey using probability-based sampling. One of the main methodological difficulties concerns reaching workers through households, which are the sampling units typically used in mail or land-line telephone surveys. Many precariously employed workers, especially those with low wages, do not have their own homes with land-line telephones, opting instead to use only cell phones.

In addition, low-wage workers are more likely to live in rental housing, shared housing or to move often, features which can make them difficult to capture in household surveys. The US ‘Broken Laws’ Survey, a landmark study of 4,387 unorganized workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles for six months in 2008 (Bernhardt et al., 2009), sought to overcome these limitations by using the Respondent Driven Sampling method developed by Douglas Heckathorn (1997). This methodology involves using snowball sampling to recruit survey respondents, a ‘ticket’ system to determine the social network that each respondent was recruited through, and then estimating each respondent’s probability of selection based on the size of their social networks. This method proved effective in recruiting workers typically not captured in such surveys, and revealed extensive levels of employment standards violations. For example, nearly 70 percent of workers recruited experienced pay violations in the previous week (Bernhardt et al., 2013, p. 735). But, while this survey has many strengths, particularly with regard to its commitment to survey hard-to-reach workers in precarious jobs, its methodology is costly, time consuming, and difficult to replicate.

Even when sample surveys successfully reach the precariously employed, social pressures can make some people reluctant to disclose information about their employer or employment standards in their workplace, despite assurances of anonymity. Surveyors may be perceived as authority figures who are potentially related to the employer or the state. As US-based survey research demonstrates, workers who are immigrants, engaged under temporary work permits, or undocumented, may perceive greater risks of employer retaliation as a result of disclosing information about their work experiences (see Bernhardt et al., 2009, p. 12). Unfortunately, the very characteristics that make workers hesitant to report on ES in their workplace also make them more likely to experience employment standards violations or erosions. That is, those workers who are the most likely to have experienced employment standards violations —such as workers with insecure residency status— are also the most likely to refuse to speak with surveyors for fear that they will lose their source of income and, in some instances, face investigations from immigration or labour authorities (Smith & Ruckelshaus, 2006; Gomberg-Munoz & Nussbaum-Barberena, 2011).

For workers who are willing to disclose their employment experiences, a major barrier for many is their limited knowledge of employment standards regulations. Many workers are not knowledgeable about how complex employment standards legislation applies to their particular situation, especially those with low levels of literacy and those who are newcomers to the countries in which they work (Gellatly et al., 2011; Vosko, 2012). Distinguishing between workplace issues that relate to employment standards and those that do not (such as harassment) presents substantial difficulties, as many workers do not necessarily understand the legal distinction.

Reference guide for national definitions of employment standards

The purpose of this reference tool is to provide users with a guide to employment standards in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Content is organized according to the five modules of the ESD. The guide allows users of the ESD to easily find information on employment standards and note differences between and within the jurisdictions.

Principles of Data Harmonization

In constructing statistical tables to explore employment standards in a comparative perspective, we build on the insights of scholarly literature from several disciplines that explore the phenomenon through multiple research approaches (qualitative, quantitative, archival, and policy research, etc.). The ESD subscribes to five principles of harmonization that draw on those principles developed in the CPD.


Do any comparable data exist? This principle reflects issues surrounding whether questions on certain topics are asked in a given survey or set of surveys in a given year, how they are asked, and whether they are measuring the same underlying concept.

Comparability, but not at any cost

This principle reflects the aim to compare likes with likes by considering the meanings of categories in context. For example, scholarship illustrates a correspondence between shift work and unsocial hours. The ESD aims to reflect these important nuances and differences in the cross-jurisdictional comparisons it facilitates.

Meaningful Classifications

Many surveys appear to provide information about the same topics. However, it can be difficult or impossible to compare such information in a meaningful way across multiple jurisdictions and/or at different scales. One common example is level of educational attainment. Educational systems differ across the contexts under consideration such that different social meanings are attached to the same or similar credentials in different places and some forms of educational attainment do not exist in certain places, such as apprenticeships. As a result, in some instances, it may be misleading to attempt comparison. Another example is firm-size, often used as an indicator of control over the labour process, but which can have different legal implications in different regulatory contexts, tied especially to regulatory frameworks governing employment standards. Finally, there is the vexing issue of creating comparable occupational and industrial classifications, an issue that has been addressed in-depth in earlier research developing from the CPD.

Maintaining the smallest level of granularity

When the goal is comparison, researchers are confronted with the inevitable trade-off between comparability and finely-grained analysis. To address this trade-off, every ESD table aims to retain the smallest level of granularity possible. To do so, many variables have multiple iterations representing different levels of granularity.

Acknowledging silences/invisibilities in the data

As research on the critical political economy research on ES and ES violations has highlighted, a large proportion of ES violations go unreported and therefore by undetected by labour inspectorates. The ESD utilizes surveys designed to uncover some of often undetected ES violations. However, it must be acknowledged that sampling workers who are most likely to experience such violations is difficult and therefore many gaps and silences in the data persist. We build upon this theme in the ESD modules and in the library resource.

Data Sources

Survey of Employment Standards Compliance in Ontario (SESC), 2012

SESC is a provincially-representative telephone survey which collected information from 229 working-aged, non-unionized, low-wage employees (earning less than $16/hr or equivalent) in Ontario, Canada in March-August 2012. The SESC survey was conducted by the Institute for Social Research at York University. SESC 2012 includes information on hours of work, rate and regularity of pay, overtime pay, holiday pay, complaints and enforcement, and a general job profile. The data collected by SESC corresponds closely to the respective sections in the Ontario Employment Standards Act on payment of wages (Part V), hours of work and eating periods (Part VII), overtime pay (Part VIII), and public holidays (Part X).

Survey of Workplace Problems and Actions (SWPA), 2021

This survey was developed by a team of academic and community researchers as a follow up to the pilot Survey of Employment Standards Compliance. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the survey was altered substantially in order to ask about both employment standards *and *about workplace health and safety since April 2020. The survey targeted non-unionized employees who were earning low wages ($18/hr or less). The survey was designed to collect information about workplace problems related to pay, scheduling, COVID-19 health and safety, and other health and safety, as well as the actions that workers’ took in an effort to resolve those problems.

Survey of Employment Standards Violations (SESV), 2011

SESV was conducted in 2011 and targeted 520 employees in low-wage and/or precarious employment in Ontario, Canada. The data was collected by the Worker’s Action Centre and Parkdale Community Legal Service in Toronto. The survey participants include recent immigrants, racialized workers, women, low-wage workers, and workers without citizenship status who are often missed in standard surveys. The objective of the SESV is to document the extent of employment standards violations experienced by these workers, and how they are impacted as a result. Detailed data is available about employment standards violations, including: unpaid wages, overtime violations, unpaid vacation, termination and public holiday pay, as well as pay stub violations.

Australia at Work Survey (AWS), 2007-2011

AWS is a longitudinal study which tracked changes in the working lives of individual Australians. The data was collected by the Workplace Research Centre at the University of Sydney. In 2007, telephone interviews were conducted with 8,341 people who were in the workforce in March 2006 with follow-up interviews conducted once a year from 2007 to 2011. The large sample size enables researchers to examine the conditions of particular occupational and industry groups. The survey collected data on: current employment situation, occupation and industry, forms of employment, the labour contract, employment income, working conditions, attitudes toward work, and demographic characteristics.

Individual’s Awareness, Knowledge and Exercise of Employment Rights Survey (IAER), 2000

IAER is a nationally representative telephone survey of 1,000 economically active people of working age (males 16-64, females 16-59) in the United Kingdom in 2000. The data was collected by the Institute for Employment Studies and NOP Research Group. IAER focuses on workers’ levels of awareness and knowledge of employment rights and their exercise of those rights. The data was collected in the context of recent reforms to employment law, such as changes to parental leave and dependant care, a National Minimum Wage, Working Time Regulations, and disability discrimination. Respondants were asked about any work experiences that may have amounted to an infringement of their employment rights, and what actions they had taken as a result. Questions related to employment rights were also asked, such as, if the respondants believed these rights were currently available to them, and (if eligible) they had utilized them.

Unrepresented Worker Survey (UWS), 2004

UWS was collected through a telephone survey conducted from October to November 2004 (6 weeks) in the United Kingdom by the Working Lives Research Institute at the London Metropolitan University. The survey was focused on a sample of 500 non-unionized workers who were currently employed, or had been at some time in the past three years, earned at or below the median wage in their region and experienced a problem at work. The UWS covered ten potential job-related problems that respondents may have experienced at work during the three years prior to the survey, including: payment issues, job security, lack of opportunities, discrimination, difficulties experienced when requesting time off work, working hours, workload, health and safety, concerns related to contract or job description, and other workplace problems, such as stress or bullying. The UWS also includes respondents’ detailed demographic information and their workplace and employment backgrounds.

Employee’s Awareness, Knowledge and Exercise of Employment Rights Survey (EAER), 2005

EAER is a multi-stage stratified sample of working age individuals (16-64 for men and 16-59 for women) who were current employees or had been employees in the previous two years and who were living in private households in the United Kingdom. The Department of Trade and Industry commissioned the Institute for Employment Studies and BMRB Social Research to undertake the EAER survey in 2005. The EAER focuses on employees’ knowledge of specific employment rights provisions (e.g., level of the National Minimum Wage, holiday entitlement, maternity leave and anti-discrimination law). The data also includes information about respondents’ awareness of employment rights, knowledge of specific employment rights, experience of problems at work, perceptions of future problems at work, future sources of information about rights at work, employer and job details, and socio-demographic characteristics.

Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers Survey (BLUW), 2008

BLUW examines systematic and routine violations of employment and labour laws in core sectors of the American economy. The data was collected by the Centre for Urban Economic Development, National Employment Law Project, and UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. In 2008, the research team conducted a landmark survey of 4,387 workers in low-wage industries in the three largest American cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. The researchers used an innovative, rigorous methodology that enabled them to sample vulnerable workers who are often missed in standard surveys, such as undocumented immigrants and those who are paid in cash. The researchers’ goal was to obtain accurate and statistically representative estimates of the prevalence of workplace violations. The BLUW includes measures of a range of violations of labour standards, as well as workers’ demographic and employment characteristics.

Works Cited

Bernhardt, A., et al. (2009). Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America’s Cities. New York, NY: National Employment Law Project.

Bernhardt, A., Spiller, M. W., & Polson, D. (2013). All Work and No Pay: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. Social Forces, 91(3),725-746.

Bezanson, K., & Luxton, M. (2006). “Introduction: Social Reproduction and Feminist Political Economy.” In K. Bezanson & M. Luxton (Eds.), Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neoliberalism (pp. 3-10). Montreal, QC & Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Charlesworth, S., & Heron, A. (2012). “New Australian Working Time Minimum Standards: Reproducing the Same Old Gendered Architecture?” Journal of Industrial Relations, 54(2),164-181.

Cranford, C. J., Fudge, J., Tucker, E., & Vosko, L. F. (2005). Self-Employed Workers Organize: Law, Policy, and Unions. Montreal, QC & Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Davidov, G. (2014). “Setting Labour Law’s Coverage: Between Universalism and Selectivity. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 34(3), 543-566.

Fudge, J. (1991). “Reconceiving Employment Standards Legislation: Labour Law’s Little Sister and the Feminization of Labour.” Journal of Law and Social Policy, 7(1), 73-89.

Fudge, J. (2009). “The New Workplace: Surveying the Landscape.” Manitoba Law Journal, 33(1), 131-150.

Fudge, J., & McDermott, P. (1992). Just Wages: A Feminist Assessment of Pay Equity. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Fudge, J., & Tucker, E. (2004). Labour Before the Law: The Regulation of Workers’ Collective Action in Canada, 1900-1948. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Gellatly, M., et al. (2011). “‘Modernising’ Employment Standards? Administrative Efficiency and the Production of the Illegitimate Claimant in Ontario, Canada.” The Economic and Labour Relations Review, 22(2),81-106.

Gomberg-Munez, R., & Nussbaum-Barberena, L. (2011). “Is Immigration Policy Labor Policy? Immigration Enforcement, Undocumented Workers, and the State.” Human Organization, 70(4),366-375.

Graefe, P. (2007). “Political Economy and Canadian Public Policy.” In M. Orsini & M. Smith (Eds.), Critical Policy Studies (pp. 19-35). Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Heckathorn, D. D. (1997). “Respondent-Driven Sampling: A New Approach to the Study of Hidden Populations.” Social Problems, 44(2),174-199.

International Labour Organization (2008). The Decent Work Agenda – Looking Back, Looking Forward: A Growing Consensus. Retrieved from–en/index.htm

McBride, S. (1992). Not Working: State, Unemployment, and Neo-Conservatism in Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Panitch, L., & Swartz, D. (2003). From Consent to Coercion: The Assault on Trade Union Freedoms (3rd ed.). Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Peck, J. (1996). Work-Place: The Social Regulation of Labor Markets. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Peck, J. (2001). Workfare States. New York, NY: Guilford.

Picchio, A. (1992). Social Reproduction: The Political Economy of the Labour Market. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Porter, A. (2003). Gendered States: Women, Unemployment Insurance, and the Political Economy of the Welfare State in Canada 1945-1997. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Samers, M. (2001). “’Here to Work’: Undocumented Immigration in the United States and Europe.” SAIS Review, 21(1), 131-145.

Sangster, J. (1989). Dreams of Equality: Women on the Canadian left, 1920-1950. Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart.

Smith, R., & Ruckelshaus, C. (2006). “Solutions, not Scapegoats: Abating Sweatshop Conditions for all Low-Wage Workers as a Centrepiece of Immigration Reform.” New York University Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, 10(3), 555-602.

Thomas, M. P. (2009.) Regulating Flexibility: The Political Economy of Employment Standards. Montreal, QC & Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Thomas, M. (2010). “Labour Migration and Temporary Work: Canada’s Foreign Worker Programs in the ‘New Economy.’” In N. Pupo & M. Thomas (Eds.), Interrogating the New Economy: Restructuring Work in the 21st Century (pp. 149-172).  Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Thomas, M. (2016). “Producing and Contesting ‘Unfree Labour’ through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.” In A. Choudry & A. Smith (Eds.), Unfree Labour? Struggles of Migrant and Immigrant Workers in Canada (pp. 21-36). Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Tucker, E. (2013). “Old Lessons for New Governance: Safety or Profit and the New Conventional Wisdom.” In T. Nichols & D. Walters (Eds.), Safety or Profit? International Studies in Governance Change and the Work Environment (pp. 71-96). New York, NY: Baywood Press.

Ursel, J. (1992). Private Lives, Public Policy: 100 Years of State Intervention in the Family. Toronto, ON: Women’s Press.

Vosko, L. F. (2002, April). “Rethinking Feminization: Gendered Precariousness in the Canadian Labour Market and the Crisis in Social Reproduction.” Presentation given at the 18th annual Robarts Lecture. Toronto, ON: York University.

Vosko, L. F. (2010a). Managing the Margins: Gender, Citizenship, and the International Regulation of Precarious Employment. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Vosko, L. F. (2010b). “A New Approach to Regulating Temporary Agency Work in Ontario or Back to the Future?” Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations, 65(4), 632-653.

Vosko, L. F. (2012). “’Rights without Remedies’”: Enforcing Employment Standards in Ontario by Maximizing Voice among Workers in Precarious Jobs.” Osgoode Hall Law Journal, 50(4),845-874.

Vosko, L. F. (2019). “Feminist Political Economy and Everyday Research on Work and Employment: The Case of Employment Standards Enforcement.” In M. P. Thomas, L. F. Vosko, C. Fanelli, & O. Lyubchenko (Eds.), Change and Continuity: Canadian Political Economy in the New Millennium (pp. 41-59). Montreal, QC & Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Waring, M. (1988). If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Wikander, U., Kessler-Harris, A., & Lewis, J. (Eds). (1995). Protecting Women: Labor Legislation in Europe, the United States, and Australia, 1880-1920. Urbana, IL: University of Chicago Press.