Requiescat in pace, Madeleine Parent, activist and Canadian legend

March 14, 2012

It seems tragically appropriate that Madeleine Parent, one of Canada’s greatest union organizers, died on March 12, during International Women’s Month, at the age of 93. She was a great supporter of women’s rights and most especially those of workers. Her efforts improved the lives of thousands of textile workers in Québec.

My first encounter with Madeleine Parent was as a twentysomething reporter in Sudbury, Ontario, another union town with two major nickel companies, where she had been invited as a speaker. The fire and passion she exuded at the age of 75 were mesmerizing. I learned of the great battles in Valleyfield, Québec and her clashes with 1940s and 1950s Premier Maurice Duplessis, a corrupt conservative intent on keeping the province well-entrenched in the 19th century and who accused her of being a Communist. Duplessis had Parent arrested five times, accusing her of seditious conspiracy after a strike in 1946, under the aegis of the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA). The strike had pitted the union against company, church and state. Madeleine Parent was convicted the following year, and received a two-year prison sentence she would not serve. The courts granted her an appeal in 1954. During the 1995 proceeding, the jury acquitted her in 30 minutes.

As a result of the false charges of communism against her, however, the international headquarters of the UTWA fired her in 1952. The activist then established the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union (1952) and the Confederation of Canadian Unions (1969) along with her husband, Kent Rowley. Following her retirement in 1983, she continued to speak out for the rights of immigrant and native women.

It speaks to the chasm between the two solitudes of Canada (English and French) that the news of Madeleine Parent’s death was reported immediately in Québec papers’ headlines, and in radio and television news, while hardly a peep was discernible in national English-language media. This is despite the fact that Parent’s actions and legacy go well beyond Québec borders.

Unlike Mother Jones, another great union leader, Madeleine Parent espoused the role, importance and demands of working women throughout her life. She was a titan amongst activists. She will be sorely missed, and well-remembered.

Occupy This: What Would Saul Alinsky Do?

October 26, 2011

Though both Americans and Canadians suffered the label of “anemic” as protests initially raged through the Arab world against dictatorship, then through Greece as a reaction to the debt crisis, the Occupy movement which has sprung up recently isn’t just American-born; it’s also one in a long line of U.S. demonstrations. The labour movement on our side of the pond may not be as robust as elsewhere, such as Scandinavia, but it had its moments. Canada has almost three times the rate of unionization as the U.S. does, but the latter may just be due for a resurgence.

This said, the one meme the media keeps picking up from the targeted financial elite is “oh, the protesters don’t have a single issue.” As professional organizer Saul Alinsky could have told you – and did, in his seminal work Rules for Radicals – that’s simply not the point. In fact, he stated that “multiple issues mean constant action and constant life.” They also create alliances, which the disenfranchised will always and forever need. The one per cent is certainly right, in that what it has created is far from a single issue: it’s a multi-headed hydra.

However, if the Occupy movement has more than one concern, the policy implications of being part of the 99 % are quite clear: tax the wealthiest to pay for social programs. In Canada, banks alone managed to hide $16B in assets from 1993 to 2007, according to an UQAM study. This doesn’t even begin to cover personal income. On the government side, as Murray Dobbin pointed out, Paul Martin cut $100 B in income taxes from 2000 to 2004 as minister of Finance. Then, his Conservative counterpart Jim Flaherty largely created his $50 B deficit by slashing $ 60 B in taxes, which he then argued he had to compensate by slashing programmes. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking of the Tea Party and the showdown over the U.S. debt ceiling, you’re right. Canada thought of it too.

The time is ripe for the continent, and the world, to broker a new New Deal for everyone. There won’t be demand for anyone’s goods otherwise, let alone any fair play.

TIFF and the political economy of Canadian films

September 15, 2011

To many, the Toronto International Film Festival is now second only to Cannes in terms of importance and star power. It may in fact be gaining ground on its venerable French rival. The dizzying array of Hollywood mega-celebrities on hand each year appears a testament to the fact: from Madonna to George Clooney, Gerard Butler to Francis Ford Coppola, there are enough famous artists for the 2011 edition of the Festival to fill the pages of every paper and magazine.

This is part of the conundrum. A glance at blogs, newspapers, magazines and television crews covering TIFF shows the vast majority of comments and interviews are devoted to Hollywood blockbusters and film stars, none of which really need the publicity given the size of the prints and advertising budgets at their disposal.

Who does need this publicity? Oh, yes: Canadian films (in addition to their independent foreign equivalents). Then again, so does TIFF itself. In attracting the big names and joining the big leagues, the Festival has become more and more financially viable and now has more capacity to make a difference for Canadian filmmakers… but in courting Hollywood bigwigs, it has to give them something back. That “something” is a platform that, in generating its own heat, inevitably crowds out the less stellar participants.

The result is either a vicious cycle or a virtuous circle, depending on where you stand. Hollywood can and will pick up independent product; its stars and directors come from all over the globe, so one cannot speak of being “shut out”. Yet, this very transnationality precludes most localization save for American references. Toronto and Montreal become New York or Chicago. The occasional blockbuster or epic will take place in China or perhaps the Congo. However, the majority are set stateside.

Despite 34 features screening at the Festival this year, Canadian programming itself is still the wallflower at the dance compared to its more glamourous Hollywood counterpart. In addition, the vast majority of films entered as Canadian are coproductions. True, foreign films have a pride of place at the Festival, and rightly so, that they simply can’t garner at other times of the year. There may be French, Jewish and Native film festivals in Toronto; however, the exposure they get is clearly not the same as any film can get at TIFF. The mere fact of being chosen for the festival is a badge of merit for most. This is why the relative obscurity of Canadian features in Canadian media at this time of the year is a shame.

Journos and newspaper publishers alike, along with television managers and their ilk, will argue that they give readers and the audience what they want. It’s a circular argument, and easily belied by the most elementary knowledge of economics and differentiated product neo-marginalist theory. How do you know what people want? They ask for it. Most will shrug their shoulders and end it at that. However, there is a deeper question which we must ask: why do people ask for one kind of entertainment and not another? Answer: because it’s what they know.

It stands to reason that no one can possibly ask for something they know nothing about. In basic economic theory, perfect information is a sine qua non condition of a competitive marketplace. There can be no proper competition without full information. Prints and advertising are information. So is media coverage. Every article and interview is free publicity for the recipient, allowing information about the product to be disseminated to the potential audience.

Therefore, the constant and fulsome media coverage granted to Hollywood superstars does indeed reinforce the impression that their films are the ones to see before all others.

Information as a crucial component of film marketing is shaped by the nature of film as an economic product. By definition, cultural products behave exactly like differentiated products. This means they rely on branding to reach an audience. Films can’t be sold in the same way as wheat or petroleum. To buy a film is to consume it entirely. There are barriers to entry and those barriers have to do with unsubstantial things such as image as much as, or more than, standard economic characteristics such as economies of scale.

Marketing a film is always a shot in the dark, even with generous funds available for prints and advertising. The 1980 Hollywood film Heaven’s Gate is a classic example, losing $40 million even after a recut and rerelease. At the other end of the marketing and distribution/exhibition scale lies the practice of four-walling, whereby a distributor rents out a theatre for a flat weekly fee and retains all resulting earnings. This type of strategy has been used successfully for niche films such as Spike Lee’s early work and My Big Fat Greek Wedding by Nia Vardalos. Another kind of grassroots marketing is targeting the audience by demographic category. This method worked relatively well in the case of the 1990 Canadian film The Company of Strangers, about a group of seniors stranded when their bus broke down. The producers created buzz through organizations and venues frequented by seniors, also offering screenings in targeted locations.

As it happens, TIFF does that type of grassroots marketing. It’s called Film Circuit, and it actually started in Sudbury, Ontario, in a small festival called Cinefest, founded by a guy called Cam Haynes. Film Circuit brings great indie films to people who might not otherwise have a chance to see them, in locations where foreign and Canadian films are usually shut out of local theatres (unless they’re called Porky’s). It’s a terrific initiative and I’ve always felt Haynes was a genius. However, it just doesn’t get enough recognition; i.e., publicity.

So here we are again. Okay, we can’t expect the New York Times to get excited about Canadian cinema. But what about right here? Earth to Canadian media: hello there. Canadian cinema exists. Would you mind, please? I’ve got nothing against George Clooney, but you know Pascale Bussières might have made just as good of a cover on Hello magazine Canada.

Canada

Canadian women covering war — twice the battle, half the sky

March 23, 2011

Since CBS News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Lara Logan revealed her February 11 assault in Egypt in Tahrir Square, both discussion and backlash have emerged about what women face as reporters in war zones. Canadians are no exception. During a Ryerson Conference entitled Women in the Field: Changing the Face of Journalism, foreign correspondents from leading national media revealed their own stories, impressions and feelings. “Reporting in Risky Situations” was one of three panels on the situation of women in Canadian media.

Gillian Findlay, now host of CBC’s the fifth estate, has covered stories in conflict areas such as Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Iraq and the Near East. In 1998, she was in Bagdad. Iraq was the target of bombings pursuant to sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein. Unrest swept the capital and Findlay went to work. The security rule was for the crew to stay together: not an easy task in the middle of a mob. As the correspondent stopped to talk to the translator, the cameraman signaled that he would go ahead. “Before I knew it, I was alone… blonde and female in a sea of young Iraqi males”, recalls Findlay. She soon started feeling hands groping her, becoming more and more aggressive. Completely surrounded, the reporter saw no way out. “For the first time, I was truly afraid”, she says. Eventually, the Iraqi fixer for the crew came to the rescue with a big iron bar and dragged her out of harm’s way.

Shaken but unhurt, Findlay kept the incident to herself until the Logan story brought the memories back. “I decided very quickly I didn’t want people to know and certainly didn’t want my bosses to know.” Still young, with two young children at home, she didn’t want to give anyone reason to question whether she was up to the job, she admits today. With the Lara Logan story came the revelation that she wasn’t alone.

Canadian women who work as foreign correspondents not only bear the burden of gender difference, but face the same hostility against foreigners as their male counterparts. Globe and Mail reporter Sonia Verma had her own mob encounter while seeking out pro-Mubarak demonstrators in the wake of the Logan assault. The crowd starting moving toward them. As Verma videotaped the demonstration with her iPhone, men started to hit her with sticks and punch her. Her colleague Patrick Martin headed toward her immediately and security guards from a nearby building came out, shooting in the air. The janitor let the two reporters in, putting his wife and children at risk. “The crowd was outside, chanting for our deaths”, Verma recounts. The crew thought of escaping but was advised to stay in and wait until the crowd dispersed. “These people were right in my face and I could see how much they hated me”, recollects the journalist. Back at the hotel, unable to sleep, she took a bath and, as she stepped out, saw the many large bruises covering her back. Adrenaline had kept her from feeling the blows.

Meanwhile, popular and even media reaction to women assaulted in war zones has ranged from sympathetic to antediluvian. Here in Canada, one of the worst came from Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington, who opined that mothers had no business leaving their children behind to go get themselves raped and beaten abroad. He made no mention of fathers taking risks. When Verma first heard of the column, “I thought it couldn’t be true”, she says. “I read it and my face was getting red. It was hitting all my buttons.” In the end, her husband wrote a letter in response which garnered widespread attention.

Nevertheless, Sonia Verma’s life as mother and war correspondent seems to epitomize the challenges women face in such situations. Reporting on foreign affairs was her lifelong dream and she pursued it tenaciously. While pregnant with her first child, she revealed nothing of her condition and went to Gaza, covering gun fights there. Three months into the pregnancy, she fell asleep in the car as the bullets flew all around. Verma remembers heading for the riots in the old city, where people were using tear gas. Her fixer chased her out, she says, saying tear gas was bad for the baby. Once her child was born, the journalist stopped breastfeeding at three months in order not to jeopardize travel chances. When her children were three and 18 months old, she was taking assignments in Afghanistan. “These are my choices,” she points out. “I don’t need to justify my choices to anyone.” The guilt lingers for all mothers, however. Difficult as it is, “I love my family, I love my work and I’m not willing to give up either one of them”, she declares.

Despite the risk and sacrifice, being a woman abroad can open doors closed to male reporters. Michelle Shephard, national security reporter for the Toronto Star, asserts “I’ve never had a story where men wouldn’t speak to me”, not even Islamic fundamentalists with connections to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, she has always had access to women and their stories. One example she gave was from a Northern refugee camp in Kenya, where a young woman had been stoned to death. All her friends spoke to Shephard, but were uncomfortable around the male photographer. Moreover, being underestimated because of gender can work out to a reporter’s advantage. Once, in Waziristan, “generals were not taking me seriously,” she recalls. They let their guard down and gave her more information.

Overall, the women on the panel were very clear: women prove themselves as reporters every day under the same conditions as their male colleagues. Not to send them out to war means losing half the story.

The psychology of exploitation: unpaid overtime

November 14, 2010

Many companies try to get around the Employment Standards Act. I remember being told, in person, something different from what was in the employee’s manual. When I asked why, I was told that oh, they just wrote that stuff in the booklet because of the law.

Nice. Those pesky laws will make you write down just about anything.

In short, I got the very strong impression that I would be encouraged, no doubt “for the sake of the team”, to work unpaid hours outside of my shift.

It’s usually hard to get all your work done on certain days without staying longer than the end of the shift. If you do, it will be unpaid labour, never mind unpaid overtime. And if you don’t, your coworkers are very likely to resent you and blame you for the work being late, the client getting upset and the higher-ups taking it out on the staff, instead of blaming the company for breaking the law, putting everyone in an unacceptable situation and playing everyone off against each other.

I’m angry at this kind of set-up. If you refuse to help companies disregard labour laws, you are “not being flexible” and have “a negative attitude”. Meanwhile, just how “flexible” is the company itself by refusing to pay for the additional hours staff is working? The company is the one stealing time.

Every employer should get this: a deal is a deal and the law is the law. This applies to the corporation, just as much as it does to anyone else. Maybe I don’t like those pesky laws either. Should I just help myself to the hardware? Just how “positive” is a company that places its multi-million dollar comfort above the low-wage survival of its employees? How many companies out there nickel-and-dime their employees by sanctioning them if they’re five minutes late, even if those very same people stayed late to finish something the day before?

Should you resist your exploitation, your coworkers are also encouraged to see you as “selfish”, “difficult” and “not a team player”, someone who is “causing them problems”, because they will now face the pressure to pick up the slack created by the company’s refusal to adapt, with its multimillion dollar budget at its disposal, and its insistence on making its low-wage employees do all the adapting at their own expense instead.

If all of us just said “no”, the company would have to back down and understand that a) work will be late; or b) if the client gets upset too often about this, staff will have to be paid overtime, with or without the client paying for it, since it’s a question of keeping customers and besides this, more work means more orders and more orders mean more income, which clearly will pay for expenses. Ergo, there is no victim in this case, and no excuse.

Should you go along with your exploitation, then you are “responsible” and “reliable”, of course… in addition to being exhausted, resentful and stressed out. Perhaps the company and your colleagues will appreciate you more, but your pocketbook, health, family and friends will not.

Obviously, these interpretations of staff behaviour can have a tremendous impact on people’s future, so how “voluntary” is the unpaid labour supposed to be? Should the company decide you are rocking a little too hard, it is 100 per cent certain they will come up with a million reasons for your dismissal which, ostensibly, have nothing to do with the issue of overtime hours. Of course. The employer defines the terms of employment. They add anything they like. You can be found to infringe on a dozen rules no one has bothered to enforce for the past 20 years. Therefore, legal provisions against retaliation can be difficult to uphold, at least in a court. Retaliatory measures are not, however, difficult to illustrate through media exposure, of which there really ought to be much, much more. Just the chronology of someone saying something about a labour law issue, then starting to get negative performance reviews, should be a clear tipoff to anyone.

In Ontario at large: law and practice

It isn’t the first time I’ve been in this type of situation and many have been even worse. One of the “top five” in the bad boss sweepstakes did a lot of things, including trying to discourage me from taking a lunch break. I put a copy of a booklet on Ontario Labour Laws, with the 30-minute break requirement highlighted in yellow, on my desk so it was highly visible to everyone. I was never bothered again, at least not about that. However, he still insisted on making me work an average of 60 hours a week or more, all additional hours unpaid, until I was so exhausted I went on stress leave and never came back. At the time, I still didn’t realize salaried employees are entitled to overtime pay as well as hourly-paid workers. This was the case even under the Harris Conservatives. It’s certainly the case now. If I didn’t know, how many others don’t?

I’m not alone. Far from it. According to the Lang Michener labour law firm website, approximately 20 per cent of employees in Canada work overtime, working around nine extra hours per week on average. Half of these people don’t get paid for the overtime they put in. These are the official findings. I’m betting there’s a lot of unofficial abuse that no one is calculating and that can’t be determined.

Moreover, as the firm points out, “there is a widespread misconception that salaried workers are not entitled to overtime pay. According to the Human Resources Professional Association of Ontario, 44.75% of organizations said their non-management, salaried employees are expected to work overtime without pay. Whether an employee is paid on an hourly or salary basis is not criteria for overtime entitlement. Salaried employees have the same entitlement to overtime as hourly employees.”

However, confusion arises because of exceptions to overtime pay protection, which apply to certain professions (lawyers, doctors, architects, landscapers, engineers, IT professionals) or “employees in a supervisory or managerial position”. Maximum number of hours is not the same as entitlement to overtime pay. Even if employees agree to work more than the 48 hour maximum, up to a 60 hour maximum, they are still entitled to overtime pay.

One of the biggest sticking points is reclassifying employees as managerial. Just when, legally, is someone a manager? As it turns out, apparently not just because their company gives them the title: “According to the Human Resources Professional Association of Ontario, 29.85% of organizations did not understand the legal definition of “manager” for overtime purposes.” Supervision of other employees and the authority to hire, fire, promote, transfer or discipline employees are key criteria, but not the only ones. Managers must have additional powers, such as the power to make decisions about company policy and planning, as well as budgeting and purchasing power, amongst other criteria.

Another big exception is contract employment. Some companies hire individuals as subcontractors to avoid the headaches of payroll. If they pay a fixed sum per contract term, they can also avoid paying overtime, or even avoid paying minimum wage. According to a Star article in 2007, “one in four self-employed earn incomes of $20,000 or less.” However, as noted by Leanne E. Standryck of L B & W, contractual employees must pass a four-point test in order to be considered independent and not employees. At issue are: 1. the extent to which the company controls the performance of the individual’s services; 2. whether the individual owns the tools and equipment used in rendering the services; 3. whether the individual has a chance at profit; and 4. whether the individual has a risk of loss. Should a company be judged an employer, there are costs to trying to circumvent legislation this way. Still, too many employees are unaware of their rights; and, judging from employer practices, too many of the latter don’t seem to understand there is a clear test a judge can apply.

Remedies to exploitation

Class action lawsuits against firms such as KPMG, BMO Nesbitt Burns, CIBC and others over unpaid overtime have made headlines in the last few years. However, the case against the CIBC was shot down and this decision was upheld. It is now being appealed.

Lawsuits are not the only means to target employers who try to violate the law. It’s also possible to file a complaint with the Employment Standards Branch of the Ministry of Labour. Despite the ceiling on possible compensation ($10,000), any given complaint opens the door to more investigation: “Government Employment Standards Officers looking into one employee complaint have the authority to investigate the employer to see if there are any further violations against other employees, even if no other employees have made a complaint… Of course, the Ministry of Labour also conducts surprise workplace spot-checks, both at random and in response to anonymous tips.”

Violation of the Employment Standards Act in Ontario can lead to a fine of up to $100,000 for a first offence, and $250,000 and $500,000 for second and third offences. Each offender was named, so that at least potential employees can check to see if the firm offering them employment will be an opportunity, or a nightmare. The Ontario Ministry of Labour also issues a press release with every conviction and names the offending employer. Plus, if nothing else, the investigation takes time and effort. It probably costs the company about as much as, say… paying fir overtime.

My Toronto, unfortunately

June 25, 2010

I started out to write about the 80 striking Novotel workers down on the Esplanade, since they were supposed to have some reinforcements drop by later in the afternoon. Sure enough, the picket line was boisterous, the giant inflatable rat magnificent, and several were there from other places: not just CUPE but also workers from other hotel chains, as well as non-unionized colleagues from the two other Novotels, which are all owned by the French company Accor along with their Toronto Centre counterpart. With the French delegation to the G20 at the hotel, the union thought of shouting out a timely message.

The main issue on the table has been wages and benefits. All hotel workers face the same struggle, though some have it worse than others, explains Teferi, who works at the Royal York, “where conditions are much better. But we have to fight to get everyone to the same level. Some people are forced to do two jobs. They have no time for their families.” Yasmin is at the Courtyard Marriott and says there, workers are still waiting for the company to make an offer. She explains the unionized workers at 35 Toronto hotels would rather negotiate together, something the hotel chains oppose vigorously. According to the UNITE HERE Local 75 website, the number of hotel workers bargaining together in Toronto in 2010 is now 6000.

Then there’s the story of Rekha, a pro-union militant at the Mississauga Novotel, which has fought worker organization tooth and nail. She recounts numerous instances of management intimidation, including meetings during which workers were apparently told to think of how auto workers were unionized and lost their jobs as a result. Fired without cause, she was reinstated shortly after by a Labour Board decision. Since her hours as a food and beverage worker were reallocated to others, she was given far fewer shifts upon her return and has had to take out loans to make ends meet, she says. Rekha adds she’s not alone: one pro-union Ottawa Novotel worker was apparently fired because he “wasn’t happy enough there.” (Note to companies: workers create unions because there’s a legitimate reason why they are not happy, and the whole attitude thing connected to this, i.e., organizing unions, is in fact protected by Ontario law).

Rekha notes the industry is notoriously difficult to organize. The seasonal nature of the work and high turnover rates are a major factor. This said, UNITE HERE represents over 100,000 hotel workers across North America. UNITE stands for Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and HERE, for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. They merged in 2004.

The Novotel on the Esplanade sits on some prime real estate, a stone’s throw from the G20 Summit site and its notorious security fence. I walked a bit while it was still possible, since the fence was open. No one stopped to ask me for identification as several websites had warned me would happen, so I guess I didn’t look quite dangerous enough. Could be the grey hair. I’ve never seen so many police officers. Every street corner had at least two and the summit hasn’t even started yet. There were cops sitting down eating strawberries, cops leaning on their cars, cops standing around their bicycles, cops getting into boats, cops walking with their riot helmets bouncing off their thighs. Most of them looked profoundly bored, but it was a warm sunny day, despite the dire forecast of rain and thunder showers.

As I walked along the street, I wondered where all those police officers were when my neighbour was getting strangled in my old neighbourhood at Lawrence and Kingston Road. I phoned 911 when I saw a man attacking her in the hallway, and yelled out that I’d called police and they were on their way. The attacker looked up at me and snarled that I was next, “bitch”. It took the cops three hours to show up. The station is right down the road, not even a kilometre away. Somehow my neighbour didn’t die and the guy left, but what if he hadn’t. She wasn’t in the Esplanade, or attending a summit of world leaders, whose heads are each worth, apparently, 500 times more cops than hers, before anything even happens.

I walked up Bay. At Adelaide a thin man sat on the sidewalk, bent over in misery. He held out his cup. It was filled with pennies, right there in the heart of the financial district, where workers wear suits worth more than this man will likely collect in a year. When I dropped in what I could, he thanked me so effusively it sounded like he’d run into Santa Claus.

That alone was enough to remind me why we need change.

(Pictures : striking workers are here and fence here)

Migrant workers in Canada a focus of pre-G20 proceedings in Toronto

June 21, 2010

Cross posted at Canada Meets World

Did you know that agriculture tops the list when it comes to workplace fatalities in Canada? Yet, in Alberta, migrant workers aren’t covered under the Occupational Health and Safety Act – and in every Canadian province, all foreign workers are vulnerable to reprisals if they protest unsafe conditions. Meanwhile, both Alberta and Ontario prohibit unionization of migrant agricultural workers.

As Toronto gears up to host the so-called G20 summit with what former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin was instrumental in designating the world’s most powerful economies in South as well as North, many voices beg to differ on who should decide the fate of the world. Among the most dispossessed of these voices are some representing those who labour to produce what the world eats, or otherwise consumes. Migrant workers are now a fixture of North-South value transfers, their flight serving to palliate lacunae in employment opportunities within their home countries as their low-cost, easily manipulated labour fills the gaps in host economies.

As one of those hosts, Canada has allowed employers to benefit from migrant work for over 40 years. The federal government administers the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Temporary Foreign Workers Program for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (TFWP). The number of workers involved, most of them from Mexico and the Caribbean, has jumped from 5,000 in 1978 to over 20,000 by 2006. Tied to a single employer, these workers are vulnerable to deportation should they speak up about health and safety violations or substandard living and working conditions. None of them are eligible for overtime, holiday premiums or vacation pay. They also have Employment Insurance premiums deducted from their paychecks, but very few know of any opportunity to receive benefits.

This is something the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada (UFCW) is working to change. Since 2002, the union has provided information to workers through support centres. In 2008, it created the Agriculture Workers Alliance which now operates nine agricultural worker support centres across Canada, helping to file health insurance and prescription claims, intervening in repatriation and helping with tax forms, workers’ compensation, vacation pay, and parental benefits.

To counter the G20 summit agenda, the UFCW held the No Rights, No Rules: Migrant Workers in a Globalized World conference, in English and Spanish, in Toronto on June 20. One panel outlined the global situation and the general situation in Canada; the other panel let workers tell their stories.

As UFCW president Wayne Hanley pointed out from the start of the conference, the union’s slogan is “if you’re good enough to work here in Canada, you’re good enough to stay here.” Stan Raper, the national representative from UFCW’s National Organization Department, observed that some agricultural workers don’t want to stay in Canada and be residents. “I understand that,” he said, “but why not give them status so they can come and go as they please?” He compared the existing visa system to slavery, under which whoever isn’t “a good boy” can be deported.

At present, only residency status can end this vulnerable state. However, activists such as Max Correa, Secretary General of the Mexico-based Central Campesina Cardenista, believe the true solution is genuine free movement of labour, accompanied by genuine guarantees of workers’ rights, to go with the free trade of goods and services under NAFTA. He pointed out during a videoconference interview that many migrants are forced to leave their land as a result of the devastation and pollution wrought by Canadian mining companies.

NAFTA, however, won’t help anyone from outside North America. Filipino activist Marco Luciano outlined how migrant worker programs affected his own country of origin. Filipino migration has occurred since Spanish colonization hundreds of years ago. In the early 1900s, large numbers were sent to the Americas to work in plantations. By 1929, 18 % of Hawaiians were Filipinos, working as fruit pickers and farm workers. During the Great Depression, thousands were deported. Some workers stayed in California to pick grapes for vineyards, others went as far as Alaska.

In the Philippines proper, 75 per cent of Filipinos depend on the land, most of which is owned by a few landlords. Produce tends to be cash crops such as flowers, pineapple and asparagus rather than subsistence crops such as rice. Farm workers are the lowest paid of all. The only urban sources of income are factories, garment shops and export processing zone companies owned by multinational corporations.

Luciano observed that the Filipino government acts as a broker for international interests: with the export-oriented, import-dependent country subject to massive unemployment, the government has endorsed a labour export policy which provides an outlet to diffuse social unrest, addresses the unemployment problem and brings foreign currency through remittances totalling $18 billion in 2009. In that same year, one million Filipinos left their country as migrant workers, at the rate of 3,000 per day. Canada is host to the lion’s share of these: 400,000, 185,000 of whom come to the GTA. The systematization of migrant worker exports has been practically enshrined by the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which touts remittances as foreign aid and migration as a tool for development.

Angela Rankin, who visits agricultural migrant workers in Canada and counsels them on their rights, spoke of the living and working conditions she witnessed on farms in Ontario. In one instance, there were 20 beds in a single room. In another, workers were forbidden to shelter from the rain during downpours and thunderstorms. She informed the audience many workers were afraid to come to the conference for fear of being deported. “At the end of the day, without them, we would not have anything to eat,” she pointed out.

Of the workers who spoke about their experiences, many remained anonymous, fearing reprisals, as moderator Sonia Singh explained. Many face fraud upon arrival in Canada. One male caregiver paid $8,000 USD, only to discover his employer did not exist. The agency which had promised him work told him he would have difficulty getting a job because he was a man. Finally, after several months, he found work in construction, which he had never done before. However, this caused problems with immigration authorities. He is now awaiting a ruling on his case.

Another worker came in from Jamaica to work as a chef in a resort in Northern Ontario. After three months of training, 20 people in her group were told their contract was terminated. They lost their $1,000 fee and had to pay their airfare back home. Then, she discovered the work she obtained was only part-time and occasional. The mother of four children was left with paychecks of no more than $100 a piece in some cases, in addition to having to pay rent. The group had no means of going to the bank or buying food. “This country has not been good to me,” she observed. Soon she will be returning home.

One live-in caregiver described her extensive experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada. Caregivers are overworked, maltreated and underpaid, as well as often subjected to sexual harassment. Workers are separated from their families for years, facing isolation and potential alienation.

Even though it is now illegal for agencies to collect placement fees from live-in caregivers coming to work in Canada – a legal provision that has yet to be applied to other migrant workers – many still pay because of the crushing poverty and unemployment in their home countries, as Gina Bahiwal testified on behalf of the Underdog Project. “Most of us are college and university graduates. We expected to live in a nice house, at least a comfortable house”, but the building in which she was housed by the agency was old and dilapidated, she explained. There were nine people living in a three-bedroom apartment and six to eight people in a two-bedroom one. Workers were not free to join organizations or to meet with other Filipinos in Canada. The agency tried to frighten workers by threatening not to renew work permits. “People were afraid of losing their jobs, not being able to feed their families”. Two weeks ago, the agent brought contracts and said that without cash, there would be no copy of the contract. People paid, but got no receipts and no copies of any contracts. “We want these abuses to stop. We are here for them, speaking on their behalf”, said Bahiwal.

In short, some victories have been obtained in law, but to have these enforced and respected is still another matter. One obstacle is the lack of information workers have before coming to Canada, and in some cases after their arrival. Organizations such as the UFCW and the AWA seek to redress the balance.

Pre-G20 People’s Summit in Toronto: the real deal on maternal health

June 20, 2010

Cross-posted at Canada meets World

What does it take to really help mothers stay healthy? An Amnesty International presentation on maternal mortality in Peru in the context of Millennial Development Goals, part of the People’s Summit held in Toronto June 18-20 to oppose the upcoming G20 forum for the world’s richest economies, provided some answers.

In Peru, the to-do list is likely longer than Canadian International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda’s. There’s a need for social change to empower women’s decision-making, roads for people to get to health centres, bilingual people fluent in Quechua and English and… perhaps to start, a budget for the Maternal Mortality National Plan. That’s right: with one of the highest maternal death rates in the Americas at 185 per 100,000, Peru has allocated no money at all to improve the situation. Meanwhile, U.N. estimates of maternal mortality are closer to 240 deaths per 100,000. Why the discrepancy? Ruth Mier y Terán Moscoso, responsible for campaigns and training in the Peruvian section of Amnesty International, points out the government has a vested interest in keeping maternal mortality rate reports as low as possible. Bigger issues, of course, need bigger solutions, which cost more money.

Presumably, this is the kind of problem the Harper government in Canada intended to solve, and should solve, with its maternal health initiative for developing countries, $1 billion over five years, which initially excluded any sort of birth control funding and still excludes abortion services. There’s just one thing: women need to control more of their lives, and their governments, for any real progress to happen.

Each year, some 500,000 women worldwide die during pregnancy or while giving birth and nine million children die before they reach the age of 5, according to Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) statistics. About 2.5 million teenagers have unsafe abortions each year and tend to be more seriously affected by complications. That’s just the start of issues recorded during the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, as noted by Amnesty International Women’s Human Rights Campaigner Lindsay Mossman. At the heart of maternal health is the need for the mother to have the capacity to make independent decisions about her reproductive choices, from age of marriage to contraception use. Once this is secured, mothers need access to care.

Marrying young puts mothers at risk. Women from 15 to 19 are twice as likely to suffer complications from pregnancy. Women under 15? Five times as likely. Choice is crucial. In Peru’s rural communities, the hardest-hit by poverty and lack of health care, choice is something women don’t have, explains Mier y Terán Moscoso. The power of women is an issue, as only men (with the exception of widows) have the right to vote in local assemblies. Women have no choice about having children, she says. It depends on the husband.

At the systemic level, abortion is currently illegal in Peru except to protect the health of the pregnant woman. Whoever seeks an abortion without being at risk faces two years in prison and the doctors performing it, four years. Ambiguity over what constitutes a health risk makes doctors hesitant to perform any abortions at all, says Mier y Terán Moscoso.

Meanwhile, rural areas are the hardest hit by a lack of access to health care, with subsequently higher maternal death rates. Eight out of ten communities in Peru rated as extremely poor are in rural areas. Many have indigenous populations and 40 per cent of indigenous people have no identity papers, which must be obtained in Spanish. Therefore, they have no access to universal health care. Physical access is also a problem: 51 per cent of all communities have no health centre at all. Half of those who do have only a first-aid post. And while the government has paved roads for exploration of mining and oil rights, many rural communities with human beings as their only resource have no roads at all.

Meanwhile, when doctors do appear, they may face extremely difficult conditions, working very long hours. They do not speak indigenous languages, so that in the absence of interpreter services, they won’t be able to communicate with patients. Women in rural indigenous communities are less likely to speak Spanish than men. For this reason, they may also face difficulties in taking medicine as prescribed. As a result of all these factors, only 36 per cent of women in rural areas go to a health care centre or see a health care professional.

Therefore, the picture of health goes beyond the wish or intention to provide services. Empowering women helps take away much of the risk of pregnancy and birth. Helping communities gain access to health care can involve more than training or hiring doctors, and may involve substantial investments in infrastructure, as well as cultural training to better harmonize accredited practice with traditional care and customs. And, of course, once the children are born, they matter, at the very least, every bit as much as when they were in the womb. Healthy mothers are the main part of the development solution.

Toward these ends, Amnesty International has produced a report entitled Fatal Flaws – barriers to maternal health in Peru. The Canadian Chapter also has a wealth of information about the issue worldwide on its “End Maternal Mortality” blog.

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

May 14, 2010

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/

Guns are a world issue that hits close to home

April 26, 2010

One third of all guns in the world are in the U.S. And half the guns used to commit crimes in Canada come from south of the border. So yes, this country needs and wants an International Arms Treaty. “Here in Canada we live next to a country with as many guns as people and those guns are killing Canadians. This is the main argument for an international agreement,” asserted Coalition for Gun Control president Wendy Cukier during an April 22 conference in Toronto.

The Coalition for Gun Control includes more than 300 policing, public safety and violence prevention organizations and was founded in the wake of the Montreal Massacre.

Whether in the Congo or in Canada, every one of the 200,000 civilian gun deaths which occur yearly in the world happens in a neighbourhood. That neighbourhood is connected not only to a community, but to the world at large. To what extent, how often and what can anyone do about it was the subject of the talk, sponsored by York University’s Centre for International and Security Studies.

Guest speakers were Cukier, also Associate Dean at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson; James Sheptycki, York University Professor of Criminology; Kenneth Epps, Senior Program Associate at Project Ploughshares and Detective Sergeant Rob Didanieli, of the Toronto Police Department’s Organized Crime Firearms Enforcement Unit.

“Guns tend to increase lethalization,” Cukier pointed out. As it happens, it’s a women’s issue: the percentage of women killed by partners in the past year was “55 % in U.S., 46 % in Brazil and 25 % in Canada”.

Firearms flow from unregulated areas to regulated areas. This is the case from gun-heavy South Africa to surrounding countries, as well as for the U.S. to Canada. Many guns may come from legal sources but are diverted into illegal use. Regulation addresses this problem by trying to plug the holes. The objectives of an international agreement are to lower the risk of misuse and diversion, as on the national level. The UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons seeks to ensure that states prevent illegal possession.

Since most guns in the world are in civilian hands, in non-conflict situations, the human rights aspect of gun control is that states which fail to adequately regulate firearms are failing to protect citizens from gun violence.

Though the impact of regulations is difficult to prove, Cukier asserts there is broad evidence. “The difference between Canadian and U.S. homicide rates (200 versus 10,000) is explained entirely by the difference in firearms,” she observes. Meanwhile, Canadian homicide rates without firearms are only slightly lower than the ones in the U.S.

In Ontario, according to the Advocacy Project, possession or access to firearms is the fifth leading risk factor for femicide. Murders of women with guns are down 60 % in last 15 years alone, which correlates with stricter controls.

Kenneth Epps of Project Ploughshares described the push for an International Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). “National controls vary and are inadequate”, he noted, adding there is a need for common global standards in the face of the impact of irresponsible arms transfers. An ATT would regulate not only civilian weapons but also conventional military matériel.

Negotiations have started in the U.N., and are mandated by U.N. Charter. They also have overwhelming support, from 153 out of 192 countries. In addition to inclusiveness, there is a need for high standards for authorizing transfers, and for effective implementation and transparency. Given the requirement of documentation, tracing and marking, the treaty must provide help for ill-equipped states. Negotiations will start July 2010 and a treaty conference will be held July 2012. The U.S. has indicated its support despite ferocious opposition from the National Rifle Association (NRA) but has required that the conference be conducted by consensus. This raises the potential problem of problem of going to the lowest common denominator, observes Epps.

James Sheptycki described what he termed “pistolization” to describe the social phenomenon of the gun as an everyday item. Civilians own 650 million of the total 875 million combined civilian, law enforcement and military personnel weapons in the world; therefore, pistolization is a major concern. Non-conflict deaths due to firearms are high in many countries. They amount to 39,000-42,000 deaths per year in Brazil, where there are active, violent criminal networks. Meanwhile, the U.S. is the “only advanced industrial democracy in the world with a high rate of pistolization”.

Allowing civilians to bear arms can increase casualties immeasurably. The Virginia Tech shooting resulted in 32 deaths, while the one at Dawson College produced one death, with several wounded. Why the difference? Standing orders. In the U.S., police must worry about crossfire from self-defending civilians, so it takes longer to secure a perimeter. In Montreal, police were able to respond to gunfire immediately, notes Sheptycki.

Meanwhile, outside Canada, pistolization of local cultures affects peacekeepers’ security, development efforts and aid delivery, for example in the Congo. “More research is needed to integrate domestic and international levels of research on pistolization as a public policy issue,” asserted Sheptycki.

Rob Didanieli, Detective Sergeant with Organized Crime Enforcement at the Toronto Police Department, is in charge of the Arms analysis and investigation unit. Last year, 3,000 firearms were seized in Toronto alone. Many handguns are used in crime, since they are easier to conceal and use. Of these, 53 % were sourced to the U.S. and 47 % to Canada, where most were stolen from legitimate businesses.

Didanieli noted that gun running from the U.S. to Canada is a lucrative endeavour. A handgun easily available in Georgia for $300 can be sold on Canadian streets for five times that amount. Since this country is a source of high-grade meth and cannabis, drugs go down and guns come up. The large border is “impossible to police”, said Didanieli, with 300 million people going back and forth just last year.