May Day is upon us. What are the issues that have defined labour politics in the past year in Canada?
Minimum wage was certainly front and centre in many parts of the country.
But if May Day is a time to reflect on the radical labour struggles of the past and demands for the future, the minimum wage is not and should not be enough — not least because it cannot address the contradictions of Canadian capitalism.
The politics of minimum wage
The governments of British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario have raised or committed to raising the minimum wage for most workers to $15 an hour by 2018 (Ontario and Alberta) and 2021 (B.C.).
This has resulted in a predictable backlash. Analyses of media coverage have noted that business sources were overwhelmingly cited in stories rather than labour sources, negative impacts on employers were over-reported relative to positive impacts for workers and research findings were misreported to create the impression of damage to the economy.
The fact that politicians have been willing to advocate for minimum wage increases, however, points to several important trends in the Canadian economy and their implications for working people.
First, income and wealth inequality have increased in Canada. The top one per cent of income earners took about a third of all income gains in the decade from 1997 to 2007. After an initial hit during the 2008 recession, this trend has again accelerated.
The effects on total wealth are even more striking. According to Statistics Canada, between 1999 and 2012, the bottom fifth of total families in Canada saw a 14.5 per cent increase in net worth, compared with a 106.9 per cent increase among the top fifth.
At the same time, the cost of living for workers — especially housing and child care — has increased. The stagnation of wages among low- and middle-income families and rising costs, of housing in particular, has led to record levels of consumer debt. Data show that residents of B.C., Alberta and Ontario held three out of four dollars of household debt in Canada in 2012.
Precarious employment on the rise
Meanwhile, precarious employment is increasing in Canada, especially the proportion of self-employed workers and those in temporary jobs, and especially for younger workers.
Research from a Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) project, which demonstrated the limitations of existing studies like Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey, show high levels of precarious work in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), with a range of negative impacts on workers, households and communities.
At a time of record low unemployment, then, the issues of income and wealth inequality, rising debt linked to housing and living costs and increasingly insecure employment have helped fuel minimum wage increases. These issues are highlighted by sustained, creative grassroots campaigning and community-union alliances like the Fight for 15 movement.
There is also increasing media and political attention on these issues, despite some glaring failures to connect the dots.
The uncritical narrative of NAFTA, for example, as a boon to all Canadians, conceals the loss of Canadian manufacturing jobs and the decline in manufacturing wages as a direct result of trade policy (not an inevitable outcome of the natural forces of globalization).
A racialized labour market
Trade policy is only one area in which the contradictions underlying our economy are obvious. Another is Canada’s continued reliance on temporary foreign workers (TFWs).
In my own research, I’ve addressed the continuum between precarious employment and unfree labour relations in the Canadian economy. Temporary foreign workers hold work permits that are tied to an employer, which means they aren’t free to switch jobs if they are exploited. Many fear being deported if they report abuse or if they try to organize.
It’s not only sectors like agriculture that are reliant on migrants who have no route to settlement in Canada. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program expanded fastest in sectors like accommodation services and food services in the late 2000s. Temporary migration leaves these workers vulnerable by controlling the conditions of their work, and sets a dangerous precedent for all workers.
The second, related point is that labour market disadvantages in Canada are racialized. Data from the 2016 census highlighted that immigrants, in particular immigrant women, are more likely to be low-income than Canadian-born workers. The PEPSO study found that racialized workers are also more likely to be in precarious employment.
The impacts, which include what’s known as de-skilling as well as poverty, are felt by communities, not just households and individuals. De-skilling occurs when workers become trapped in jobs that don’t fully utilize their qualifications and experience — for example, when qualified Filipino nurses come to Canada to work as nannies and are unable to move back into nursing in this country.
For Black and Indigenous communities, meantime, labour market disadvantages shape and are compounded by disproportionately high rates of incarceration and the criminalization of poverty.
Harder to unionize
For unions and labour organizers, the changing economy creates additional challenges as class-based solidarities fray and the full weight of huge shifts in the composition of the labour market are felt.
As the labour movement well knows, unionism is now an uncomfortable fit for workers more likely to be employed in a branch of Tim Hortons than a branch plant.
Finally, and most fundamentally, Canada is far from grappling with the core contradictions of its model of economic growth.
Our economic policy continues to be based on what’s known as extractivism — the large-scale extraction of natural resources for the export of raw materials — which is at odds with the realities of climate change. And the wealth of the settler state, premised on that extractivism, derives directly from the expropriation and dispossession of First Nations and Indigenous peoples and their lands.
Here we see the shape of struggles to come — in the nascent alliances and tensions between the labour movement and those on the front lines of the struggle for climate justice.
This is about far more than a bigger slice of the economic pie, as important as better wages are.
It is about the definition and the goals of labour politics, and who counts.