Blue collar workers left behind

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Fri Jun 11 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Canadians will never know what happened to most of the 575,000 manufacturing workers who lost their jobs in the recession and the economic shake-out that preceded it.

They’ll hear about the lucky minority that is rehired. They’ll be able to find out about the unlucky minority that ends up on welfare. The rest will vanish from the radar screen — with one exception.

Two years ago, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) launched a study to track 260 of its laid-off members in three locations: Scarborough, Brampton and Kitchener.

The union released its interim report this week. The news was grim. Seventy-six per cent of the workers participating in the study hadn’t found jobs. Of those who had, only one-third were employed full time. The other two-thirds were working part-time or sporadically with little control over their hours, no benefits and low wages.

Keep in mind that unionized autoworkers are better off than most unemployed factory hands. The CAW operates 24 worker-action centres across the province to help its jobless members look for a job, get them into government training programs, give them a place to meet and talk openly and to support them as they deal with the health problems, family tensions and financial worries that protracted unemployment breeds.

They also have severance packages and pension benefits.

Other laid-off blue-collar workers are on their own. They have to figure out how to navigate a hostile job market, secure a spot in an oversubscribed training program, pay their bills, hang on to their homes and get their lives back on track.

Sam Vrankulj of McMaster University, author of the study, said none of the findings surprised him. They confirmed what he was seeing and hearing: Most laid-off workers are still unemployed. Those who have found work are bouncing from one survival job to the next, earning a lot less and struggling with depression, strained relationships and straitened finances.

“We are seeing evidence of a bad jobs recovery.”

The CAW will publish its final report in early 2011, after Vrankulj completes a second round of interviews.

The project was triggered by the layoff of 1,104 Chrysler employees at the company’s Brampton assembly plant in 2008.

The union proposed the study and the Ontario Ministry of Training agreed to help fund the research.

To broaden the scope, the CAW added two closed auto-parts plants, allowing comparisons between different types of workforces. One was Kitchener Frameworks, which went out of business in 2008. The other was Collins & Aikman in Scarborough, which made plastic dashboard parts until 2007.

The Chrysler workers were the youngest, best educated and most computer-literate of the three groups. They fared best. Thirty-nine per cent of them were working full-time. Fifty-seven per cent were optimistic about their future.

The Collins & Aikman workers, mostly older immigrant women with limited education, fared worst. Only 12.5 per cent of them had found full-time work. Eighty per cent were living on less than $500 a week. Their outlook was the bleakest and their family tensions the highest.

The Kitchener Frameworks employees, predominantly white men over 40, fell in the middle. Thirty-two per cent had full-time jobs. Most expected their situation to improve in the next six months.

Workers at all three sites were grateful for the hands-on help and personal support their union provided. But they still didn’t have jobs, hadn’t gotten into retraining programs and felt like cast-offs.

According to Statistics Canada, the recession ended eight months ago. According to the government, the economy is likely to grow by 2.6 per cent this year and 3.2 per cent next year. According to Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, they’re all making profits.

The economy is recovering. Its victims aren’t.

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