Improving Conditions for the Working Poor

Photo by Emma Hapke, Fellow, India, 2007Policy and research evidence show that there are three major ways to address poverty and inequalities: through work, through education, and through income transfers. The labour conditions faced by the poor are central to social determinants of health.  Policies that improve the quality of jobs held by low-income individuals so that work is more likely to lift them out of poverty, and policies that improve access and quality of education enabling them to obtain jobs with better wages and working conditions, have had the most sustainable impact on low-income working age adults and their children. Our case studies examined successful public and private sector policies and programs in Canada and globally that provide good working conditions for low-skilled workers while remaining economically competitive.

2008 Annual Research to Policy Conference - Improving Conditions for the Working Poor

Mary Cornish presenting at our May conference

On May 1st and 2nd 2008, the IHSP held its annual research to policy conference. This year's conference focused on Global Strategies: Improving the Labour Conditions of the Working Poor. It was with great pleasure that we welcomed an extraordinary group of international and national policymakers, researchers and students.

Agenda of the conference [.pdf]; ordre du jour de la conférence [.pdf]

Keynote speakers:

Kathy Newman, Director, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies: Opening Keynote [.pdf] ; Discours d'ouverture [.pdf]

Stephen Pursey, Senior Adviser to the Director-General of the ILO, Director of the Policy Integration and Statistics Department: Luncheon Keynote: Shaping a Fair Globalization [.doc]

Senator Hugh Segal: Keynote address [.pdf]

Pat Horn, International Coordinator of StreetNet International, South Africa: Organising the poorest workers globally [.pdf]

John Frank, Scientific Director, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Institute of Population and Public Health: Job control and health status in the Canadian population [.pdf] ; Contrôle personnel du travail et état de santé des travailleurs canadiens [.pdf]

Welcome and Introduction to Canadian Policy Studies:

Jody Heymann, Director, McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy: Introduction to Global and Canadian Policy Studies [.pdf]

Plenary Panel 1: The Working Poor

Martha Chen, Coordinator, Women in Informal Employment Globalising and Organising (WIEGO): The Working Poor in the Informal Economy [.pdf]; Les travailleurs pauvres dans l'économie informelle [.pdf] 

Donna Lero, Jarislowsky Chair in Families & Work, Guelph University: Low-wage Workers and Vulnerable Families [.pdf] ; Travailleurs pauvres et familles vulnérables [.pdf] 

Jane Jenson, Canada Research Chair in Citizenship and Governance, Université de Montréal: Thinking about the working poor: Analysis and actions in the EU [.pdf] ; Actif mais pauvre: L'analyse et les actions de l'UE en direction des Working Poor [.pdf] 

Marie-Renée Roy, General Director, Research, Evaluation and Statistics Division, Ministère de l'Emploi et de la Solidarité Sociale, Gouvernement du Québec: Low-income workers in Quebec [.pdf] ; Les travailleurs à faible revenu au Québec [.pdf]

Plenary Panel 2: Globalization and the Changing Nature of Work in Canada

Mary Cornish, Chair, Equal Pay Coalition and Senior Partner, Calvalluzzo Hayes Shilton McIntyre & Cornish LLP: Securing Justice for Women: The Face of Canada's Working Poor [.pdf] ; Justice pour les femmes: le visage des travailleurs pauvres du Canada [.pdf] 

Ron Saunders, Vice-President of Research, Canadian Policy Research Networks: Globalization and the Changing Nature of Work in Canada [.pdf] ; La mondialisation et la nature changeante de l'emploi au Canada[.pdf] 

Joan Andrew, Deputy Minister, Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration: Working Poor in Ontario[.pdf]; Travailleurs pauvres en Ontario [.pdf]

Plenary Panel 3: Globalization and the Changing Nature of Work Around the World

Joan Benach, Chair, Employment Conditions Knowledge Network, WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health and Professor, Health Inequalities Research Group, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona:Employment, Work and Health Inequalities: A Global Perspective [.pdf] 

Carles Muntaner, Co-Chair, Employment Conditions Knowledge Network, WHO Commission of Social Determinants of Health and Adjunct Scientist, Institute for Work and Health: The Changing Nature of Work around the World- a Framework for Employment Conditions and Health [.pdf] 

Vilma Santana, Co-Chair, Employment Conditions Knowledge Network, WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health and Professor, Institute of Collective Health Federal University of Bahia: The working poor, employment conditions and health inequities [.pdf] 

Magdalena Echeverria, Advisor, Ministry of Labour, Santiago de Chile: Globalization and the Changing Nature of Work around the World [.pdf] ; La mondialisation et l'évolution de la nature de l'emploi à travers le monde [.pdf]

2007 Policy Fellows

SaraGSara Gauthier Faculty of Law, McGill University, Flexicurity and working conditions in Iceland.  

Sara Gauthier received a degree in law from McGill. She received her BA Honours in political science and her MA in political economy of development from McGill University. She is interested in issues of social justice and in particular labour conditions and the living conditions of immigrants. 



Adrienne Gibson, Faculty of Law, McGill University, Achieving Economic Success with Good Working Conditions for All Employees: A Case Study of the Great Little Box Company

After graduating from Carleton University with a bachelor's degree in Humanities, Adrienne Gibson produced television documentaries in South Asia and Canada. She received degrees in common and civil law at McGill. Her main interests are working conditions and immigration. She is active in advocacy and support for migrant agricultural workers in Quebec and worked with the Mexican National Human Rights Commission on migration and immigration issues.

EmmaEmma Hapke, International Development Studies, McGill University, Organizing Women in India's Informal Economy: A Case Study of Self-Employed Women's Associations 

Emma Hapke received a Bachelor of Arts and Science degree from McGill, studying Psychology and International Development. Her research interests include the psychological impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and addiction and mental health in the developing world. Emma hopes to pursue graduate studies in international health policy.

JuliettaJulietta Rodriguez, Occupational Health, McGill University, Role of the private sector: The Delta Chelsea Experience, Toronto, Ontario

Julietta Rodríguez Guzmán received an MSc in Occupational Health at McGill University. She received her MD from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and a Specialty Degree in Occupational Health from Universidad El Bosque in Colombia, where she is an Assistant Professor. Over the past 18 years, her work has focused on the formulation and evaluation of occupational health policies and programs, the analysis of worker's compensation systems, worker's health promotion, and comparisons of occupational health and safety and working conditions in Colombia and other Latin American countries. She is interested in understanding the policy making process and learning more about approaches for improving the working and living conditions for informal workers and other vulnerable populations in developed and developing countries.

SaraTSara Thiam, Department of Anthropology, McGill University, The Decree Regulating the Building Services Industry of the Region of Montreal: A Model for Service Labor Policy

Sara Thiam received her Honors BA in Anthropology from the University of Michigan and an MA in Medical Anthropology from McGill, focusing on global health in West Africa.



Nathan Wilkinson, Psychology and International Development, McGill University,  Growth-Friendly Policies to Protect the Working Poor in Barbados 

Nathan Wilkinson has a McGill BA in modern languages and translation. From 2001 to 2005 he lived in Salvador, Brazil, where he participated in development projects with urban youth and the homeless. In 2006 he helped an Indonesian NGO promote sexual health among migrant women workers. He was at McGill as a special student, taking psychology courses to further his research interest in intergroup relations between aid workers and communities in the developing world.


Numerous publications led by Founding Director Jody Heymann address labor conditions for those worst-off.  Research findings on working conditions can also be found online

Profit at the Bottom of the Ladder: Creating Value By Investing in your Workforce

book"Most companies understand that good working conditions, competitive salaries, and strong benefits packages attract high-quality professionals. Yet at the same time, many of these competitive companies are slashing their low-wage employees’ benefits, wages, and other workforce expenses—sending a stark message that these employees are more expendable.

In Profit at the Bottom of the Ladder (Harvard Business Press, May 12, 2010), Jody Heymann tells the stories of companies around the world that are linking successes at the top of the corporate ladder to those on all other rungs. Drawing from thousands of interviews with employees at companies—from the front line to the C-suite—Heymann shows how businesses have profited more by improving working conditions. These companies have been profitable for their owners and shareholders not only while being profitable for all their employees but because they have been profitable for their employees at every level.

Employees determine 90 percent of most businesses’ profitability. High performers positively shape customers’ perceptions of businesses, driving satisfaction and loyalty. This includes the lower-skilled employees in call centers, repair services, and product assembly—employees who are far from expendable.

Featuring cases from companies around the globe, including Novo Nordisk, Costco Wholesale, American Apparel, Xerox, Banco de Credito, Autoliv, and many others, Profit at the Bottom of the Ladder shows what works—from stock options for bakers to flexibility for factory workers to career tracks in call centers."


Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth That We Can’t Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone

Raising the Global Floor

"New statistics on rapidly rising job loss appear daily in the media. Less reported is that working conditions in many countries around the world are deteriorating as rapidly as jobs are being lost—and affecting ten times as many people. Working conditions significantly impact our health, the amount of time we can spend with family, our options during momentous life events (such as the birth of a child or death of a parent), and whether we keep or lose a job when the unexpected occurs. Inexplicably, the global community has universally accepted the argument that any country that puts in place a floor of decent working conditions will suffer higher unemployment and will be less competitive. So pervasive is this contention that it is seen as fact, even without evidence to support it.

Raising the Global Floor presents results from the first ever study of working conditions from all nations around the world. The findings are dramatic. In fact, there is no relationship between unemployment rates and providing basic protections in a series of critical areas. The data also indicate that good working conditions can make countries more competitive. In short, there is simply no reason that any American should be without paid sick leave, paid annual leave, paid parental leave, the right to a day of rest, and many other basic protections that would improve the quality of their lives." 

Work, Family, and Equity Labour Initiative

Graphic representation of global availability of paid leave for new mothers

Through comprehensive global research launched with the Project on Global Working Families started by Jody Heymann while at Harvard University, the IHSP became the first institute to produce truly global comparative data on the impact of globalization on working families.

Within that research, the Work, Family, and Equity Index (WFEI) has been developed to measure governmental performance around the world in meeting the needs of working families. The indicators in the WFEI were selected to provide an evidence-based assessment of policies crucial to the needs of working families in general and low- and middle-income working families in particular.

In compiling the WFEI, data were gathered from 180 countries, representing a wide range of political, social and economic systems, on labour practices. These include maternity, paternity and parental leave; infant and toddler care; breastfeeding breaks at work; paid leave to meet children’s health and educational needs; maximum hour limits, overtime limits, annual leave, mandatory day of rest and other standards; paid leave and flexibility for health care support for adult family members, family events and other extraordinary circumstances; and paid leave and flexibility for workers’ own health needs.

In addition to the global studies, the WFEI has looked in-depth at specific nations. The The 2007 Work, Family, and Equity Index: How Does the U.S. Measure Up? [.pdf], published in 2004 and updated in 2007, spotlights the United States. Ongoing country-specific studies, beginning in 2008 and 2009, include Work Equity (WE) CanadaWE India, and WE China.

Data from the Work, Family and Equity Index is now publically available through a website. The website serves as a gateway to international labour and work policy data, allowing, policymakers, researchers and the public to access needed data on labour policies around the world.

Working Poor Advisory Committee 2006-2008

Pierre Bergeron
Director, Directorate of Healthcare Systems and Services, Institut National de Santé Publique du Québec

Stephanie Burnstein
Professeure, Département des sciences juridiques de la Faculté de science politique et de droit, UQAM

Urwana Coiquaud
Professeure agrégée, Service de l'enseignement de la gestion des ressources humaines, HEC

Sarah Fortin
Research Director, Institute for Research on Public Policy

John Frank
Scientific Director, Institute of Population and Public Health

Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay
Professeur, TÉLUQ - Travail, économie et gestion, UQAM

Jill Hanley
Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, McGill University

Jennifer Hunt
Professor, Department of Economics, McGill University

Patrice Jalette
Professeur agrégé, École de relations industrielles, Université de Montréal

Denise Kouri
Director, National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy

Erik Kuhonta
Assistant, Professor, Department of Political Science, McGill University

Cameron Mustard
President and Senior Scientist, Institute for Work and Health

Sonia Laszlo
Associate Professor, Department of Economics, McGill University

Mary Dean Lee
Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management, Faculty of Management, McGill University

Donna Lero
Associate Professor, Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, University of Guelph

Philip Merrigan
Professeur, Département des sciences économiques, UQAM

Lucie Morissette
Professeure agrégée, Service de l'enseignement de la gestion des ressources humaines, HEC

Philip Oxhorn
Director, Institute for Studies in International Development; and Associate Professor, McGill University

Gilles Paradis
Professor, Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, McGill University; and Scientific Director, Population Health Research Network, INSPQ

Daniel Parent
Associate Professor, Department of Economics, McGill University

Paola Perez-Aleman
Associate Professor of Strategy and Organization, Faculty of Management, McGill University

Amélie Quesnel-Vallée
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Epidemiology, McGill University

Marie-France Raynault
Directrice générale, Centre de recherche Léa-Roback sur les inégalités sociales de santé de Montréal; Directrice, Département de médecine sociale et préventive, Université de Montréal; et Directrice, Observatoire montréalais sur les inégalités sociales de la santé (OMISS)

Nancy Ross
Associate Professor, Department of Geography, McGill University

Paul-Martel Roy
Professeur associé, Département des sciences économiques, UQAM

Colleen Sheppard
Professor, Faculty of Law, McGill University; and Director, Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism

Mike Smith
Professor, Department of Sociology, McGill University

Joseph Smucker
Department of Sociology, Concordia University

Wendy Thomson
Director, School of Social Work, McGill University

Sarah Turner
Associate Professor, Department of Geography, McGill University

Axel Van den Berg
Professor, Department of Sociology, McGill University

Leah Vosko
Professor, Department of Political Science, York University