By PAT WATSON
Not so long ago in an employment paradigm for which many are nostalgic, there existed countless full-time jobs protected by workplace/union agreements and with benefits: vacation pay, dental coverage, workplace injury coverage, drug benefits and employee assistance programs.
That was then.
Once the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was put in place, all of that changed. The resulting changing character of wage labour in North America over the 20 years since the implementation of NAFTA is clear. Those who watch the bottom line can report with pride that since the agreement in 1993 that removed all trade tariffs between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, trade between the three NAFTA partners has tripled, going from $297 billion at the time the agreement was being signed to $1.6 trillion in 2009.
But NAFTA was just one in a series of homeruns that the global free-market aggregate was able to advance to its advantage, and conversely, to the disadvantage of North American workers.
The labour balance is being recalibrated, so that the relative advantage now resides with workers in so-called developing and under-developed nations where wages have been traditionally lower than here in Canada and the United States.
After all, why would any businessperson with an eye to profit stay in a location where the cost of labour is eating into his profits when he could take his plants elsewhere and retain even more profits? What fidelity do they have to their workers? If you’re looking for the evidence of that, just check the “made in” notation on just about anything you can lay your hands on – shoes, computers, pens, coffee cups, T-shirts, designer labels – the list is seemingly endless.
We like to get whatever we buy at the lowest possible price. At the same time we like to be paid the highest possible price for what we have to sell. For most of us that is our labour. But if we want low priced goods, then we have to make the connection between those low prices and low wages somewhere along the line.
Yet, this crisis in wages and employment conditions is nothing new. It is as old as the Industrial Revolution of 200 years ago when workers were pulled from their farming life and into factories.
One more thing: The Internet is changing the way many people are employed and do business. Ask anyone in the newspaper business, for example, how much the Internet has changed his livelihood. Ask booksellers how amazon.com has changed the bookstore culture. Ask the people who used to work at a major telephone company how the Internet has shifted their work to India.
This kind of transition born out of ever emerging innovations never stops, but it takes the labour force time to deal with the shock and come to terms with how to respond.
So far our response has been to the seeming disadvantage of almost half of all workers today. Almost half of us are working in insecure work conditions. We are working at two or more part-time jobs to make ends meet – that is, barely meet. A good many of us are underemployed, or have taken jobs that do not utilize the skills we have so assiduously trained for. Forget home ownership under these conditions, or other amenities like a car or an annual vacation.
Enter instead, resentment toward the most visible labour dispute of late, between Ontario’s teachers unions and the government, in which the unions are getting little sympathy. Yet, when the power of unions is eaten away, non-unionized workers are weakened as well. But the crabs-in-a-barrel and divide-and-rule scenarios are in effect. We are all fighting for our piece of the pie, but when the fight is among ourselves, we end up with crumbs.
Moreover, in the shifting labour fallout, many aspects of life are thrown off balance. It shows up in the relative levels of ill-health – both physical and mental – of the general population and in the quality of the end-products of labour, whether in the form of poor quality service or poorly produced manufactured items. It shows up as politicians campaign on a platform of ‘jobs, jobs, jobs.’
Yes, we definitely need hope and change.
A note on when change is no change…
Doesn’t the new pope look like the old pope? But then, it has been ever thus.