By PAT WATSON
If you want to look for abuses of employee rights in the working world, look first to what happens to Black workers. A story familiar to many in our community has to do with training a new employee who happens to be a member of the visible majority, only to be replaced eventually by that person.
A cynic would conclude that workplace abuses are tested on the most vulnerable before becoming unspoken policy across the board.
Workers’ unions were the answer to the power imbalance that made workers virtual slaves to employment powerbrokers. But through the efforts of succeeding Conservative governments here in North America and in Europe, the value given to labour has been eroded.
Labour experts point to the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a turning point in the dynamic between corporate powers and employees. NAFTA tipped the balance toward corporations.
Now, in just the Greater Toronto Area alone, close to 50 per cent of working people are precariously employed. It used to be that people in low-wage and low-skill jobs lived with job insecurity, but these days many workers in middle-class professions are also in that boat.
Helping to ensure this climate is further nurtured, the federal government through the Ministry of Immigration and the Ministry of Labour have put in place the tools to allow temporary foreign workers to replace the local workforce.
Who wants to believe that the business friendly federal Conservatives are surprised that employers are finding ways to circumvent the rule of looking for Canadian-based labour to fill vacancies first, before going outside our borders? Why would they look here first when part of the policy for bringing in temporary workers includes being able to pay them up to 15 per cent less than local workers?
We are in a labour crisis that’s bubbling up to the surface and if left un-remedied will reach a tipping point. The Occupy Movement that camped out on King Street West in 2011 was yet another signpost of this employment unrest.
Toronto’s unemployment rate is 8.5 per cent, but among youth it is 16.5 per cent. Among visible minority youth that rate looks more like one-in-four, and this is despite many having invested in various forms of post-secondary training and education.
Unemployment across Canada is seven per cent, with government estimates that in excess of 260,000 job vacancies are waiting for qualified Canadians to fill jobs in health care, construction, information and communications technology, and jobs that require training in science and mathematics. Temporary foreign workers were employed in more than 200,000 jobs in Canada in 2012.
The bait-and-switch in this scenario comes with the legitimate concern that there is a gap between the skills that the marketplace is calling for and the skills the labour force is presenting. The unanswered question is why the private sector is not investing more in ensuring training for the skills it says it needs.
It used to be that companies would hire and then provide additional training to ensure their employees had the required skills. That was then. These days, corporations save on their bottom line by expecting workers to arrive already fully trained. But this ‘cost saving’ gambit has created the current massive skills-needs gap.
This is nonetheless a zero sum scenario since not investing in workers here means gains by workers elsewhere. That means employment opportunities for temporary workers from India, for example. And, of course, those coming from the Caribbean and Mexico to do labour intensive farm work.
It’s not that provincial governments are trying to do their part in rebalancing the labour gap problem. Training programs are out there, but the private sector needs to do more to foster the skills needed. But then, if the government in Ottawa can look the other way while low-wage temporary workers are brought in, where is the motivation for the private sector to invest in local workers?
A note on American segregation in 2013…
Ray Charles’ version of the winsome “Georgia on my Mind’, the state song of Georgia, takes on a poignant tenor with news that this Saturday, Wilcox County High School, in Georgia, will hold its very first high school prom that is not racially segregated.