Breaking our backs….. (a rant about keeping down the working class)

In March, Canada posted the loss of 54,000 jobs. That’s right folks, 54,000 jobs disappeared in one month, wiping out the gain of 50,000 jobs in February plus some. And it’s not like jobs have been plentiful around here to start with. From what I can tell by canvassing friends in Vancouver – even if you are a worker with skills (IT, Communications, Administrative Management etc) – it can take as long as 18 months to find a job after losing one. And even if you do find a job, it probably pays less than what you made at the last place.

Even though I am employed, I occasionally throw my resume at a posting for which I am qualified (and pays enough, and looks interesting:  about two jobs per year) – cause why not? And even though I have a sold skills base, a good resume, and consider myself fairly personable by cover letter – I have had a single interview in the last five years. One interview for approximately ten applications. And remember, I am only applying for jobs which I am one hundred per cent qualified to do.

So although I don’t know the frustration of being unemployed (a prospect that freaks me right out) – I am highly conversant with feeling trapped in a single job because there is nothing else out there for me.  That’s me – with a degree, a ton of professional training, eight years of supervisory and budgeting experience, eighteen years of communications positions under my belt, plus half a master’s degree and a mediation/negotiation certification underway. I can only imagine what it’s like for those fresh out of school, or with a long break in employment due to child-rearing or other life event.

Actually, I really don’t have to imagine because if there’s one thing being around the university again has exposed me to, it’s the life of younger people who are finishing degrees and attempting to get themselves into the world of work. From what I can tell – that’s next to impossible without offering oneself up to the altar of the unpaid intern these days. I have heard more than refrain on this subject: student can’t afford to work unpaid because they are no longer living at home, but no one will give them a job without work experience. Though I can’t verify this, I have also seen comments online indicating that local Co-op opportunities in certain fields are harder to come by than they used to be, since Co-op programs require a student to get paid, and companies (falsely) believe they do not have to pay interns.

On top of that, we’ve seen an explosion in the number of companies and groups (including federal government departments who are in the midst of huge layoffs!) applying to bring Temporary Foreign Workers into the country to address so-called labour shortages. Entry-level positions that newly-minted graduates are no longer available to those who won’t work for cheap or free. Skilled and professional labour is handed out to any company who can find workers willing to work for 15% less than the going Canadian wage. And suddenly the wages fall out of the bottom for everyone. And this doesn’t just impact Canadian workers – but those attempting to immigrate through skilled labour categories are finding that jobs filled with temporary foreign work are closing the skills gap that might otherwise allow them into the country. (TFW are allowed to apply for landed status after being here for a year, but it seems that outsourcing firms like iGate cycle their workers back and forth between countries to ensure they don’t get the chance to immigrate and leave their indentured servitude).

And yes, Stephen Harper made a promise yesterday to review the program – but it was his government who presided over the change last year that allowed companies to pay TFW’s 15% less than Canadian workers – part of what has made that program so very attractive to the 4000 organizations approved under a fast track aspect of the program last year. (Full list download available via the Alberta Federation of Labour). It’s hard to believe that the government had no idea (or intention) the program was being used this way until the Royal Bank  IT worker blew the whistle last week. The government’s response is simply classic crisis management – and I don’t believe we will see any substantial change to the program unless we continue to put pressure on them to do so.

The employment situation in Canada is untenable at the moment, with high unemployment and high-living costs rising simultaneous to a concerted push to drive down wages, and force young people into illegal working conditions. It’s hard to understand why Canadian business even wants to engage in this cycle – which creates only an illusion of profitability. Over time, driving down wages across the board in Canada does little more than cut the consumer base for goods and services, while forcing people on the margins into increasing reliance on government programs (EI, welfare, early pensions). Good wages across professional, skilled and unskilled sectors creates a larger tax base to draw from, the financial security that people need to make large purchases and investments, and overall improved indicators in areas like health, family services, and crime. Driving down wages in the short term may look like a good idea, but over the long run it creates a nation impoverished in more ways than one —  see America for an example.

And yes, I make no bones about the fact I’m a Keynesian.

Bottom line is that Canadians need to think about 1) whether they want to support a government that is so short-sighted, and cares so little about the well-being of their citizens and b) whether they want to continue supporting businesses engaged in undercutting unions, minimum wage standards and the right to immigrate to Canada with full status (as opposed to this TFW status that makes for the most precarious kind of labour. Personally, I’m looking at that list and I’m going to be culling from the companies I support – including RBC, and letting them know the reasons why. I’m also going to continue keeping my eye on the unpaid “internship” postings in Vancouver and sending notifications into the labour board as they arise.  This situation for workers is only going to get worse if we don’t do something to stop it.

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