Precarious jobs in Canada

Future Shop has closed all its stores, forcing 1,500 people out of work

In the last six months alone in this country, we’ve seen two retailing giants close their doors. The largest case was Target, which is in the process of liquidating its supply and closing down its Canadian operation altogether. This will mean the loss of 17,000 jobs across Canada, a good proportion of which has already taken place. Another large retailer, Future Shop, announced yesterday that it has shuttered dozens of stores, and will convert the remainder to Best Buy locations. This will result in a further 1,500 lost jobs. None of the front-line employees who worked for either of these retailers had any inkling that they would be losing their positions until the announcement was made by their employer: in the case of Future Shop, many employees had no notice at all, arriving at work to find their store closed and themselves out of a job. These job losses will have a catastrophic effect on the lives of many of these workers and the communities in which they live.

These developments highlight an issue of increasing importance for working people, especially younger ones: the problem of precarious work. Many of us take for granted that a person can work one job and pay the bills for our families. But the kinds of jobs we enjoy – well-paying, relatively steady ones with good benefits – are growing rarer in today’s economy. Employers demand that their workforce be “flexible”, which allows them a greater level of control over their labour costs. This might be good for the bottom line, but is often very bad for workers.

A few decades ago, the average employee in retail was typically young and just starting out in the workforce. For the most part, these jobs were seen as a stepping stone towards something more secure and higher-paying. With the loss of manufacturing jobs and the transition towards a service-based economy that we have seen over the intervening years, however, today’s average retail worker is in her mid-30s, often with a family and grown-up expenses to pay. Often these workers need to work two or even three minimum-wage jobs just to make ends meet. If the economy continues in this direction, there may not be many good jobs left by the time the next generation enters the workforce. What kind of world are we leaving to our children?

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Through a combination of increasing union density in these sectors, changing legislation to force employers to treat their employees more fairly, targeted investment in companies and industries that provide good jobs both from the government and the private sector, and informed decision-making by consumers (amongst other things), this trend can be reversed. As workers, we need to support our non-unionised sisters and brothers in their attempts to gain fair treatment from their employers, and participate in boycotts of those companies that rely on unfair labour practices to increase their bottom line. As citizens, we need to put pressure on our elected representatives and candidates for office to enact worker-friendly legislation and to focus on creating good jobs for Canadian workers, instead of continuing the laissez-faire economic strategy that has failed us for the better part of 40 years.

Workplace Democracy

Many different things come to mind when we talk about democracy. The most common element, of course, is elections; but is this the only thing that makes a democracy? In fact, the exercise of democracy relies on participation from the people who are directly affected by the decisions made by their leaders. Without this participation, even an organization that has democratic practices and institutions can be undemocratic if not enough people participate in the decision-making process.

Democracy is an important concept to the labour movement. Most corporate workplaces are designed to be top-down, autocratic institutions, where the boss makes the rules and his/her subordinates have no choice but to follow those orders. Unions seek to address this fundamental power imbalance by introducing a democratic element into the workplace: Union membership gives employees the ability to vote for their representatives, bargaining proposals, contracts, strikes, etc. The idea that each member has one vote is important to establishing an important level of equality amongst the employees in a workplace, as well as giving those employees a say into the terms and conditions of their employment.

Unifor is one of the largest and most democratic unions in Canada, where the membership is the highest voice in the Union. Each member in good standing may vote on motions at meetings, stand for elected office, and elect Union officers. Between meetings elected representatives are empowered to make decisions on behalf of their coworkers and are subject to regular re-election.