Archive for the ‘poverty’ Category

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.

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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/