When workers unite for fair treatment

TheStar.com – Insight – When workers unite for fair treatment: How to rid the uneasy world of part-time work of unfairness, low pay and exploitation
July 11, 2009.   Deena Ladd, Trish Hennessy, special to the star

Over a decade ago, when Canadians were still struggling over the loss of full-time, permanent positions in the 1991-92 recession, Deena found herself in between jobs.

So she did what everyone had to do when they are on employment insurance: attend a mandatory “job booster” session and learn how to find new work.

In a room filled with the newly unemployed, she found herself doused with the hope and promise of “flexible work” that would replace the security of jobs past. She was told Canadians would enjoy three, even four careers in a lifetime. That the era of the freelance consultant had arrived, and we’d all better get used to it.

Freed from the shackles of 9-to-5 jobs, we would be able to do the work we love and enjoy work-life balance.

But the new future would prove to be quite different, as we found out only a few months later while interviewing temp workers as part of a research project. Workers talked about part-time, temporary and contract jobs performed under the cover of darkness. Of working nights with no connection to others who filled the place during day hours. They spoke of bosses who refused to pay sick days and of firings for injuries on the job.

We heard stories of harassment, terrible working conditions, jobs that didn’t even pay minimum wage, temp agencies that treated people like cattle.

The realities that came to light were not nearly as rosy as the promise that had been dangled in front of us.

This was the reality of the new flexible workplace. Flexible work was, in reality, precarious work that left many feeling exploited and hopeless, with few places to turn to for help.

So we decided to invite the very workers we interviewed to talk about our research findings.

About 100 workers showed up, learning that they were not alone in their struggle – that many others were facing the same conditions at work. Workers who’d been made invisible for far too long decided to unite, to give each other voice, and to challenge the myth that flexible workplaces were good for everyone.

A decade later, many remain deeply involved in an ongoing campaign to secure better workers’ rights for all Ontarians. Just this year, we achieved three significant victories:

We convinced Queen’s Park that temporary agency workers have the right to public holidays, like other Ontarians.

We secured a new law, Bill 139, which embeds legal protections for temporary agency workers.

We convinced the province to commit to $10 million in hiring new enforcement officers to help keep bad bosses who break the rules in line with the law.

These small but important steps weren’t won overnight. They are the result of workers sharing their stories, challenging bad bosses, and agreeing on new, creative ways to make each other’s voice heard.

Since our initial research project a decade ago, we’ve created the Workers’ Action Centre.

Everything we do follows this basic principle: Nothing about us without us.

The focus of our actions and challenges comes directly from our members, who know the reality of precarious jobs and have a personal stake in the fight for their rights.

In fact, when workers call our hotline for support and advice, we start from the position that we’re not the experts – they are – and we invite them to get involved by working with others for long-term change.

Our workers’ hotline delivers support in six languages and becomes a first step for new workers to become involved in our campaign.

Every week, we hold sessions for new members, in which we give an overview of basic rights in Ontario and create a safe space to ask questions, share experiences and break the isolation that non-unionized workers face.

Something important happens: A group of people who have never met each other begin talking about the realities facing them on the job and what’s happening in their lives; they start agreeing that what’s happening isn’t right and that they have a role in doing something about it. Together.

We will never dismiss a small victory. We create change every time a group of workers goes to an employer’s workplace to demand the boss pay $,2000 in a worker’s unpaid wages or every time we demand a boss pay the legal minimum wage a worker is owed.

Each time makes it safer for another to demand workplace rights.

Each time makes it harder for bosses to engage in bad practices.

Each time it plants the seeds for a movement that continues to grow.

And there’s more to come, because we realize this is a long struggle with much still left to do.

The Employment Standards Act must be reformed to ensure all who work have basic minimum rights. No one’s pay or working conditions should be devalued because they are part-time or on contract.

At the Workers’ Action Centre, our work is really about supporting and creating a culture for political change.

Join us in the struggle.

That’s how we build a movement.

Deena Ladd is Coordinator of the Workers’ Action Centre and Trish Hennessy is Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ income inequality project

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