Robyn Benson, PSAC

Cheap labour chronicles, continued


Some folks may think I’m a trifle obsessed with the subject of cheap labour and precarious work, but I make no apologies for that. You should be, too. Your livelihood may be at stake—and the young generation, scrambling to find work, is more vulnerable than ever.

So a couple of news stories caught my eye recently. No less a person than Stephen Harper has now denounced his own government’s Temporary Foreign Worker program, stating that it has been “assisting…companies to work around the marketplace in a way that disadvantaged Canadian workers only for the sake of the bottom line profit.”

Nah, you think? And he goes on:

We have seen very blatant examples of companies using this in ways that were not in the interest of Canadians.

That kind of abuse cannot go on.

There must be plans for companies to transition to a permanent workforce. What I say is if you really need temporary workers permanently, then that means we need permanent workers who become Canadian. And they have a right to stay here, and they have a right to bargain with their employer, and they have a right to be treated fairly, and they have a right not to be sent back to where they came from the first time they don’t like something.

Gosh. I could have written that sort of thing myself. In fact, I have.

Needless to say, Harper blames all this on the previous Liberal government and unspecified “bureaucrats.” But what gets to me is his apparent tone of surprise and indignation. It’s not like this hasn’t been in the news for some time.

The key question, of course, is what he’s planning to do about it if he’s all that peeved. Was he just speaking to a select audience for effect? We’ll keep our eyes peeled. In the meantime, be assured that the strong reaction across Canada to TFW program abuses has unnerved the Conservatives, facing an election next year. And that’s encouraging news.

Then comes a story that, at first blush, may seem very removed indeed from the first one. It seems that Wal-Mart has a now-not-secret manual for managers to keep the workplace “union-free.”

On factor that apparently makes workers turn to unions is “Dirty restrooms or breakrooms,” not the first time this curious idea has been expressed.

The manual goes on to refer to “early warning signs” that unionizing is about to occur, or is already taking place. This one is more than a little creepy: “Frequent meetings at associates’ homes.” And this one: “Associates who are never seen together start talking or associating with each other and begin forming strange alliances.”

“Strange alliances,” eh? Boggles the mind.

The manual is US-based, so it states—accurately—that striking workers may not be fired, but may be permanently replaced. You tell me the difference, because I can’t figure it out. In Canada, in any case, workers may be temporarily replaced (other than in the Quebec and BC jurisdictions), but striking workers get their jobs back after a strike.

Now, the point of all this is obvious. Wal-Mart employees (or “associates”) are poorly paid, and have no job security. Unions threaten that status quo. While unions rightly guarantee nothing to workers they are organizing, their record is clear with respect to wages and benefits.

Wal-Mart isn’t the only company that’s taking an aggressive approach to unionization. And you can bet that similar handbooks and videos are circulating in Canada.

It’s odd, because there is ample evidence that lousy wages and benefits in themselves aren’t necessarily profitable. But many employers still prefer workplaces where pension benefits are nonexistent, other benefits are few, wages are low, employment security doesn’t exist—and employees have no means to push back. Our own federal employer has just passed legislation that sets labour relations back half a century—and more anti-labour legislation is in the works. In Ontario, the Progressive Conservative party of Tim Hudak set a policy some time ago to bring in US-style “right to work (for less)” laws.

Is there a trend here? I’d say so. But I can also see a counter-trend. Most Canadians support unions, and they oppose regressive anti-labour laws. The long-resistant service sector is getting unionized, one coffee shop at a time. Frustration with the US low-wage economy is boiling over. And in Ontario, strong reaction forced Hudak to pull back publicly from his “right-to-work” agenda, even if his actual intentions remain very clear.

There is nothing inevitable, then, about a future of precarious work that so many employers, including our own government, would like to see for working people. Unions and our social allies can build a different future for ourselves and our children. It’s time to put our shoulders to the wheel.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on January 22, 2014 8:30 AM.

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