‘Poor No More’ changes one life, seeks to change more

The film Poor No More, which screened in Toronto in late April and early May, positions itself as more than just a documentary. It’s also a call to action and has apparently helped one of its subjects get benefits after 20 years of being classified as a casual worker. Vicki Baier, a worker with the LCBO in Stratford for 20 years, got breast cancer and had to get chemotherapy on her lunch breaks and on weekends because of a lack of sick leave. The single mother is one of 600,000 part-time and temporary workers in Ontario and her story featured prominently in the film. According to Poor No More executive producer Dave Langille, who was on hand during an April 26 screening along with director Bert Deveaux, host and narrator Mary Walsh and local MP Olivia Chow, a rough cut of Poor No More was used during the LCBO strike negotiations of 2009. Baier now has more benefits, if not a full package.

In a letter to Tory MPP Frank Klees during strike action in June 2009, OPSEU Local 284 member Barry Ince asked “are you aware that fully 60 per cent of LCBO employees are casual and make less than $20,800 a year on average? …Yes, out of a work force of 6,000 there are 2,400 good permanent full-time jobs, but the LCBO is on a mission to replace them with more casuals and $10.00 per hour “term” employees….”

Meanwhile, LCBO profits are 1,5 B $ last year, the film organizers stated. As a whole, there were $6 billion in tax cuts distributed to Canadians in lieu of child care policies, housing supports or other means of eradicating poverty. Across the country, 7 million Canadian workers earn less than $20,000 a year. In Ontario alone, 2 million people live in poverty, organizers observed.

The film itself presents an array of  statistics to support its argument. It states that 20 per cent of Canadians earn less than $10 an hour (the minimum wage in Ontario has just been raised to this level). Many of these are women, several of them single mothers. Women in low-paying jobs are especially hard-hit by a lack of benefits. As soon as there’s a child-care issue they may be fired; if they don’t attend to child’s needs, however, they could lose the child; if they’re fired because of attendance issues due to child care they can’t get Employment Insurance; they then have to go on welfare.

Lest the film seem overly dramatic, additional research and perspective from south of the border is available at Moms Rising. “The wage gap between mothers and non-mothers is greater than between women and men — and it’s actually getting bigger. Non-mothers earn 10 percent less than their male counterparts; mothers earn 27 percent less; and single mothers earn between 34 percent and 44 percent less.” – no doubt, the numbers in Canada are comparable.

Canadian governments have consistently ignored United Nations recommendations for poverty reduction; see, as one example, the effect this has on women.

Meanwhile, the issue of increasingly precarious work that Poor No More illustrates has been documented elsewhere. Within the page of Work in Tumultuous Times: Critical Perspective (Vivian Shalla and Wallace Clement, eds.), one may read that “despite increasing levels of both formal and informal education, and rising attainments of knowledge and skills by workers, under-employment remains a critical problem affecting millions of Canadian workers according to research by David Livingstone and Antonie Scholtz. They observe that the under-utilization of knowledge and skills in the workplace is particularly common among the working classes of service and industrial workers in the Canadian labour market, and conclude that “Canada appears to be one of the more extreme cases of under-employment among advanced capitalist economies”.”

This growth in precarious employment is worldwide. According to The Employment Conditions Knowledge Network (EMCONET) Final Report on 20 September 2007, “in wealthy countries, the outcomes of these changes (to employment conditions) have been a reduced welfare net for the unemployed and disadvantaged; job losses in the public sector; growth in job insecurity and precarious employment; a weakening (in practice) of regulatory protections; and the historical re-emergence of an informal economy, including home-based work and some child labour” (p.102)

Meanwhile, in Work, Employment & Society, Vol. 22, No. 2, 351-362 (2008), the article “Skills, education and credentials in the new economy: the case of information technology workers” by Tracey L. Adams and Erin I. Demaiter argues that “the “new economy” is characterized by risk and uncertainty, with experiences of job loss, insecurity and stress.”

As part of the antidote, filmmakers argue tax cuts and tax evasion must end. Research is quoted from a May 2008 study by UQAM professor Léo-Paul Lauzon showing that Canadian banks avoided up to $16 billion in taxes by using tax havens outside the country. This would represent 30 % of their total tax bill. In contrast, Bank of America’s tax evasion would amount to 2 % of its total bill.

Meanwhile, tax cuts have seriously eroded government revenues. The film references author and broadcaster Murray Dobbin, former columnist with  the Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press and a board member of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, who observed in June 2009 that “first it was former finance minister Paul Martin with his $100 billion income tax cut over five years starting in 2000. Then it was Jim Flaherty in 2007 with $60 billion over five years. Add to that the $12 billion lost each year by lowering the GST from seven per cent to five per cent and the $50 billion is no mystery. It was an inevitability whenever the next recession hit.”

As another part of the solution, Poor No More proposes that Canada could follow the Swedish model, which is characterized by consensus building amongst government, business and labour. The level of union membership in Sweden is very high – at 71% – although it has fallen from its peak of 86% in 1995. Women have an even higher rate than men, at 81 % in 2007. The net result is far less poverty than Canada.

Meanwhile, the Canadian unionization rate has varied from 31.6 in 1970 to 28.4 in 2003. Where a casual worker in Canada was forced to get chemotherapy during her lunch breaks, casual workers in Sweden get sick pay from the second day of illness. Even McDonald’s workers are unionized. Childcare is almost free and the parental leave total of 480 days can be split between the mother and father. Sweden has a maximum fee policy: the maximum rate is 1,260 SEK (about $170) a month for the family’s first child (based on full-time care). Usually a family pays less for their second and third child – around 0.25% or 1% of the family’s income.

However, the question remains: can the Swedish model apply to Canada? According to a 2007 PPI article, “(Amsterdam labor expert Jelle) Visser suggests the most powerful reason for their (Swedish unions’) success is that Scandinavian and Belgian unions offer different services. They function more as “career protectors” than as “job protectors” – while they do negotiate with businesses, their primary missions are to manage extensive unemployment benefit funds, and provide their members with training and placement services”. Meanwhile, “Eric Sundstom, a recent PPI associate now with Sweden’s Social Democratic Party observes… that Swedish trade unions always have accepted that inefficient factories must go; they focus on the protection of their members (retrain them for new jobs when the factory has to close, instead of defending jobs that will have to go sooner or later anyway). On the other hand, unions with smaller participation rates tend to defend the specific job (and not the worker and what is best for him or her in the long run).” (Ibidem)

Can this model apply in Canada? Are Canadian unions willing to have governments download their existing responsibilities onto them, including the administration of unemployment benefits as well as career reorientation? Is government willing to consider offloading delivery while transferring funding?

Meanwhile, another potential obstacle could hinder wholesale adoption of the Swedish solution in Canada: according to some research, the increase in precarious work in and of itself serves as an impediment to unionization rates. The Employment Conditions Knowledge Network (EMCONET) Final Report (op. cit) states that “both in developed and developing/poor countries, precarious employment relations have reduced the proportion of unionized workers, especially since the 1980s” (p. 39) and “the strengthening of business interests, the atomization of companies, precariousness, short-term work, and rotation of employment do not exactly contribute to the constitution of strong union actors.” (p. 115) In addition, “the growth of precarious employment has weakened mechanisms for worker voice or involvement (workplace committees and health and safety representatives) under OHS legislation, in some countries exacerbated by declining union presence (Baugher and Timmons Roberts 2004; Johnstone et al. 2005). In developed countries, government responses to these issues has been belated and fragmentary” (p. 106) (ibidem).

What is left to fight poverty in Canada? The main answer seems to be political will. Poor No More speaks to 5 million Canadians affiliated with unions and seeks to encourage mobilization and organization. “We must organize and take from the powerful. They have never freely given to us,” asserts director Bert Deveaux, who sees the 40s and 50s as better for the labour unions in Canada while rights have been eroded in the past 15 years. To him, appealing to young voters and overcoming their invisibility at the polls is crucial. Younger workers are also most likely to be marginalized and in low-paid jobs. Meanwhile, the rest of the Canadian population clearly has a stake in changing our circumstances.

For more information on the film and how to get the DVD, see the website at: http://www.poornomore.ca/

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