Robyn Benson, PSAC

Cheap labour chronicles: 25,000 Canadian workers Targeted


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Cheap labour isn’t merely a conscious strategy—it’s a symptom of an economic system that puts profits before people. In the expanding low-wage service sector, more and more workers are facing a lifetime in dead-end jobs. The number of Canadians making minimum wage or less keeps growing—it’s up to one million workers by now. Over two million Canadians work for less than $10/hour. Three-quarters of all new jobs pay less than the average wage, and service jobs are leading the way.

A dismal picture. And some people like that just fine.

The American retail giant Target has bulldozed its way into Canada, replacing the chain of Zellers stores that we grew up with. It took over 189 of Zellers’ 273 stores from the Hudson’s Bay Company—and 25,000 workers lost their jobs as a result of the deal.

Target promised, after some pressure, to interview ex-employees for new jobs. But that turned out to be a sick farce—only 1% of former Zellers workers were offered a job with Target. The rest were simply thrown on the scrapheap.

Successor rights? Depends on where you live. In BC, Target told the Labour Relations Board that it hadn’t bought Zellers, exactly—just the real estate. So there was no “successor” to Zellers, you see, and therefore no obligation to keep the employees. The Board swallowed this whole, although there were specific circumstances with respect to the store under dispute that may have made this ruling inevitable (decision here).

In Quebec, on the other hand, that argument didn’t wash, and former Zellers employees won a qualified victory. Target would have to show that it had just cause not to take on the ex-Zellers employees who applied for jobs. Anyone turned down by Target could bring a complaint to the Quebec Labour Standards Commission. Several have been received since: the principle of successor rights in that province has effectively been upheld. In the province of Ontario, matters are still up in the air, as Target plays the same game in Thunder Bay. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) signed last-minute three-year contracts with Zellers this past January. Stay tuned.

Target, unbelievably, has managed to make Walmart, the bane of the labour movement, look positively enlightened. When the latter bought Woolco stores a few years ago, it hired on most of the ex-Woolco employees. But Target does things…differently.

To put it bluntly, Target is a miserably poor corporate citizen, and its extreme anti-union stance is well-known south of the border. Canadian workers may be less susceptible to this sort of thing, which may not even be legal here, but Target’s attitude to unions, and to workers in general, is fairly obvious, whether its new hires are forced to watch a stupid indoctrination video or not.

You’d think that all of this would be big news—that’s a heck of a lot of jobs lost in one fell swoop—but it hasn’t exactly been banner headlines in the mainstream media. Nothing, it seems, must interfere with the dominant narrative: that things are getting better, that the economy is wonderful, that Canada is a happy place. 25,000 service sector jobs lost are best ignored. Better to launch an attack on a new union instead—the corporate sponsors of the mainstream media prefer that sort of thing.

UFCW has gone to bat for the affected employees, unionized or not, and has a website well worth a look, called Target Fairness. It’s all part of the push-back as economically marginalized, low-wage employees, some with decades of work experience, are tossed aside to make way for fresh young ones.

But the trenches are being dug even now. Canada’s labour movement can’t just sit back and watch this happen.

Meanwhile, Target has hired a lobbying firm with close ties to the Conservative Party. It obviously knows who its friends are.


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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on September 10, 2013 9:07 AM.

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