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'You've Served Your Purpose and Now You're Trash'

What do you do to a society when you strip away its members' anchors, strip away their identities, strip away their sense of meaning?

By Michael Valpy 31 Dec 2013 |

Award-winning journalist Michael Valpy is this year's recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. He can be reached at Five pieces from Valpy's larger series are being published with permission by The Tyee. Find the entire Tyee series so far here.

[Editor's note: This is the second of five pieces The Tyee is publishing this week from "Me, You, Us," an investigation by journalist and author Michael Valpy into social cohesion in Canada -- what binds us together, what draws us apart. These pieces are from Valpy's larger 2013 Atkinson Series, recently published in its entirety by the Toronto Star.]

Canadian physician William Osler, known as the father of modern medicine, once soared into the heavens of rhetoric in the early 20th century to describe work. The "master word," he called it.

"It is," he said, "the 'open sesame' to every portal, the great equalizer, the philosopher's stone which transmutes all base metal of humanity into gold.

"The stupid it will make bright, the bright brilliant and the brilliant steady. To youth it brings hope, to the middle-aged confidence, to the aged repose. Not only has it been the touchstone of progress, but it is the measure of success in everyday life."

And until recently, maybe 30 years ago, most Canadians would have believed that. No longer.

Today, for more and more people -- in particular immigrants, older workers, the young and women -- work brings anything but equality, hope, confidence and repose. Rather, it is becoming the fearsome cave of economic insecurity and the place where dignity and a sense of meaningfulness and self-worth are left at the door.

To University of Toronto's Ursula Franklin, one of the world's foremost experts on technology and its impacts, social cohesion is not defined by a society's similarity of values but by who it includes and who it excommunicates to the margins of mainstream life: who it does not let in through the door to share in the good life.

To seek out who gets excommunicated, says Franklin, go look at the workplace. Which is what more and more scholars, agencies and institutions are doing.

From the Law Reform Commission of Ontario to the United Way Toronto and the Wellesley Institute, from social scientists at Ryerson, McMaster and York Universities to precarious workers lobby organizations such as the Workers Action Centre -- to cite some of the work being done in the Golden Horseshoe -- researchers are producing a wealth of data to show how the workplace, the crucible of our sense of personal meaning, is being devalued.

It is a phenomenon surfacing throughout the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the rich countries club.

But as Citizens for Public Justice, the well-regarded Toronto faith activist organization, says in its recent labour market survey: "The good news is that, unlike many other countries, Canada has the fiscal capacity to invest in well-designed measures to support employment that target those most in need. What we need now is the political will to move forward."

The question posed by the organization, by Franklin and by others is this: What do you do to a society when you strip away its members' anchors, strip away their identities, strip away their sense of being meaningful? What if you don't replace it with anything?

More and more jobs are being outsourced to temporary employment agencies where pay is low, security and benefits non-existent and liability under provincial laws governing workplace compensation and occupational health and safety is murky.

Companies claim these practices as necessary to improve flexibility in an increasingly globalized world.

But, says a Workers' Action Centre report, "workers' experiences show that outsourcing, indirect hiring, and misclassifying workers takes place in sectors with distinctly local markets: restaurants, business services, construction, retail, warehousing, trucking, janitorial, home healthcare and manufacture of goods consumed locally."

The Ontario government recently has moved to address some of the regulatory gaps but there are still holes to fill. Other provinces are further behind.

Dropping out forever

Since 2008, the labour market has become more volatile and both long-term unemployment and the duration of unemployment have grown. Citizens for Public Justice says the average duration of unemployment is much longer than it was before the recession, rising from 14.8 weeks in 2008 to 20.2 weeks in 2012, an increase of 36.5 per cent.

"Long-term unemployment is strongly associated with social exclusion and growing income inequality. It is especially significant for vulnerable workers who are at high risk of losing marketable skills and dropping out of the labour market altogether."

At the same time, the phenomenon of large corporations with fat profit balances putting young Canadians to work at unpaid, possibly illegal internships has become commonplace while their unemployment rate is more than double the national average.

For young people, says Citizens for Public Justice, "they have always struggled to establish themselves, [but] times may well be harder now. Diminished job security, growth of temporary work, rising costs for the basics [education in particular] and record debt levels are threatening the economic security of a generation and could leave a permanent gouge in the national economy."

Now, in growing numbers, they are giving up on the search for work.

Says Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, who coined the One Per Cent label to describe the uber-rich, "We could have recognized that when young people are jobless, their skills atrophy. We could have made sure that every young person was either in school, in a training program or on a job.

"Instead, we let youth unemployment rise to twice the national average. The children of the rich can stay in college or attend graduate school, without accumulating enormous debt, or take unpaid internships to beef up their resumés. Not so for those in the middle and bottom. We are sowing the seeds of ever more inequality in the coming years."

As for recent immigrants, a just-published study by Toronto's Wellesley Institute says too many of them "are stymied at the edges of the economic mainstream, despite the skills for which they were recruited to come to Canada. Newcomers survive by participating in parallel economic activities, working under-the-table or 'on the side.' Often, they face exploitation in substandard work conditions even in established businesses."

Excommunicated. Or in the words of welder Wally Syme: "Not recyclable" -- his explanation of why he's on the margins of employment, why he's been pushed to the side, turned into a temp worker asking for crumbs from the labour market after a 30-year career with benefits, job protection, union security.

"You're not recyclable," he says in a basement room in a tired strip mall on Oakville's west side down by the lake. Pale lighting, pale walls. Tinny music from a radio. Metal tables, folding chairs, a coffee machine, a dead man's photograph, poster-sized, pinned up: an icon for a martyr.

"He was calling me, he can't find a job," says the manager of the room, a former local president with the Canadian Auto Workers, talking about the dead man. "He just passed away, at 61, his picture's on the board there." Not recyclable.

The room is the gathering place -- the men call it their sanctuary -- for what's left of a community of 400 blue-collar workers who built transit buses at Daimler AG's Orion plant in Mississauga, until Daimler decided it was no longer profitable to make buses in Canada. It shut down the plant a year ago and moved across the border.

The average age of the men left without jobs was 55. Their median length of employment was 22 years. Their pay was between $22 and $30 an hour. Maybe a half-dozen at most -- six out of 400 -- have succeeded in finding new work at comparable pay.

For the rest?

"After 20, 30 years, you feel like you've served your purpose and now you're trash," says the union man who asked to speak anonymously. "You Google me, my picture comes up with [former CAW president] Ken Lewenza and my affiliation with the union and all that, and it makes it hard for me to get a job. They look at me as a troublemaker."

Not recyclable -- and undesirable if you're connected to a union.

Temporary jobs, the new norm

So some of you might say to yourself: An average age of 55, the guys at Daimler who lost their jobs? Well, they had their innings.

They also have mortgages still to be paid, sons and daughters still to be helped through post-secondary education, groceries and clothes still to buy, houses to repair, cars to fix, years to wait for full pensions, a status still to maintain in their communities of being useful, worthwhile, productive citizens, their dignity still to hold on to of going out their doors in the morning to work.

From the company, about $30,000 in severance pay, which Ottawa and Ontario taxed. Then 15 or 16 weeks of unemployment insurance, which they had paid into for 20-plus years (the proportion of jobless workers covered by unemployment insurance is the smallest since 1945).

Then nothing.

The union man recites a catalogue of suicide attempts, divorces, rampant depression, alcohol abuse, cancer and sickness without health benefits, houses lost because mortgage payments couldn't be maintained. Men hide in their homes and won't come out. Men are too ashamed to tell friends and former co-workers they're delivering flyers, delivering pizza. Men go for a job that's been advertised and a thousand guys have already applied for it.

Many of these men are now temps -- dependent for employment on the temporary work agencies that have become the engines of Canada's labour market, delivering just-in-time, roll-on-roll-off workers for a cut. Flexible employment, it's called. The new norm.

You want a welder? There are men like Wally for a few bucks over the minimum wage, a fraction of what they earned at Daimler Bus, no benefits, no job security, no union protection. Sign them up for as long as you need them and then wave goodbye.

These former Daimler employees have joined the precariat along with hundreds of thousands of their fellow Canadians.

The precarious proletariat

Precariat -- an amalgam of precarious and proletariat -- has been given widespread currency by British labour economist Guy Standing, a former senior researcher for the International Labor Organization, whose 2011 book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, has become the touchstone for what's happening in the Western world to industrial workers, the young and racialized immigrants (that is, visible minorities).

"In many countries," writes Standing, "at least a quarter of the adult population is in the precariat. This is not just a matter of having insecure employment, of being in jobs of limited duration and with minimal labour protection, although all this is widespread.

"It is being in a status that offers no sense of career, no sense of secure occupational identity and few, if any, entitlements to the state and enterprise benefits that several generations of those who saw themselves as belonging to the industrial proletariat or the salariat had come to expect as their due."

It is a critical -- and ominous -- element of social cohesion because sociologists and economists believe that barriers to economic participation in society contribute far more to social fragmentation and social exclusion than differing values and personal attitudes.

It is very much linked to inequality.

Standing labels the precariat "the new dangerous class" because it is contributing to political instability throughout the developed and almost-developed world. "Chronically insecure people easily lose their altruism, tolerance and respect for nonconformity. If they have no alternative on offer, they can be led to attribute their plight to strangers in their midst.

"It is a class in the making, approaching a consciousness of common vulnerability. It consists not just of everybody in insecure jobs -- though many are temps, part-timers, in call centres or in outsourced arrangements. The precariat consists of those who feel their lives and identities are made up of disjointed bits, in which they cannot construct a desirable narrative or build a career, combining forms of work and labour, play and leisure in a sustainable way."

In the basement room in the Oakville strip mall, the men talk about the temp agencies that have entered his life. "They're identity thieves," says one.

"I came from a poor family but we called ourselves middle class. There wasn't anybody you knew who didn't either work at Ford, Westinghouse, Stelco, Dofasco. We all had an identity. We had jobs for life."

He talks about the osteoarthritis creeping into his knee. When he goes looking for employment now, lining up behind younger workers to compete for jobs, "I got to walk so it doesn't show I'm limping."  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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