What has gone wrong for working Canadians?
TimesColonist.com – Business – Labour Day a chance to reflect on how our society has changed
September 4, 2011. By Ken Georgetti, Times Colonist
There was a time in Canada, not that long ago, when a working person could expect to have a family-supporting job throughout his or her life.
For an honest day’s labour, a worker could raise kids, buy a house, pay off the mortgage, take vacations, have weekends off, help send the kids through college and retire with a modest but livable pension. Jobs were relatively secure and employers showed loyalty for good work.
And employers benefited too, because working families had the income to buy their goods and services. Wherever you worked, these were common features for most jobs.
This Labour Day, as we celebrate the contributions of working people in building a better Canada, we have to ask: What has gone so wrong in our country?
Today, the average family needs two full-time jobs just to get by. A 40-hour workweek is often a dream. And even getting a decent job is challenging, with more low-pay, part-time jobs than ever.
Keeping your job is also difficult, with the regular recessions our world economy is facing and consequent layoffs. Employer loyalty usually amounts to what’s legally required – and sometimes those minimums are ignored.
Having more than one or two children is simply too expensive. Post-secondary education costs are exorbitant, yet a post-secondary credential is necessary to find employment that demands skills and specialized training.
And retirement with dignity and security has been replaced by fear that the golden years will be spent languishing in poverty instead. About 1.6 million seniors live on under $16,000 a year – a sad commentary. Those fortunate enough to have a workplace pension see it attacked as “too expensive,” while most chief executive officers enlarge their own multimillion-dollar pensions.
And Canadians with Registered Retirement Savings Plans or other investments saw their value drop 15 per cent in just a week as markets crashed in August, for the fourth time in 20 years.
What happened to the lifestyle most Canadian workers celebrated on Labour Days past?
One answer is that the middle class has suffered through a quarter century of wage stagnation, where real income after inflation barely increases.
The Conference Board of Canada acknowledged that recently in a study which found that in the 33 years between 1976 and 2009, median income increased by just 5.5 per cent – from $45,800 in 1976 to $48,300 in 2009.
Another answer is that unions, which help workers gain a fair share through better wages and benefits, have a lower percentage of members, due to regressive labour laws that make it harder to join a union and easier to contract out unionized work.
In the past, non-union workers also benefitted from union contracts won through collective bargaining, because employers usually matched those gains to keep employees and avoid organizing drives. Now unionized workers are pressured to match the lower standards of non-union workplaces in a race to the bottom.
It’s no accident that wage stagnation for 80 per cent of Canadians and the dramatic transfer of wealth to the few began as unions came under sustained attack.
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