Some things Canada does better, relative to the US, by differences of kind. Health care, personal freedoms (abortion rights, same-sex marriage), justice (no death penalty). A fair election system. Democracy!

Some things Canada does better only by degree. Those degrees are important, they represent real progress. But they're also areas crying out for attention.

There's a big food drive going on in the Toronto area right now. Daily Bread, the Toronto food bank, feeds 100,000 people each month. There's an excellent overview of their work on their website, as well as a detailed report (pdf) on hunger in the GTA.

No one should be hungry here. A greater percentage of people are hungry in the US, of that there's little doubt. But this many people going hungry in Canada's largest city means we're doing something wrong.

The Canadian Association of Food Banks says there's been a 79% increase in food bank use since 1995. So we're moving backwards.

One great cause of urban hunger is the confluence of high housing costs and low wages. People who work in low-wage retail or service industry jobs, forced to spend more than 50% of their income on rent, are often a food-bank visit away from malnutrition.

* * * *

When I read Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait & Switch, her excellent book on the disappearing middle class in the US, I was wondering how prevalent the displaced corporate employee is in Canada. I had heard (from someone with painful first-hand experience) that Canadian companies have been firing employees and hiring them back as "independent contractors," but I didn't know if the practice is widespread.

Thomas Walkom of the Star recently answered my question.
In effect, there are now two types of workers in Canada. The lucky ones have full-time, often unionized, jobs with good wages and benefits such as pensions. The less fortunate make do with non-standard work. They may work at two or three part-time jobs; they may be temporary workers, contract workers or those who, while doing the work of normal corporate employees, are listed on the books as self-employed.

In the past, the term "self-employed" was usually applied to well-paid professionals like doctors and lawyers. Now, all kinds of low-wage workers — from delivery people to television researchers — are treated by their bosses as self-employed. The reason? An employer does not have to pay employment insurance or Canada Pension Plan premiums for self-employed workers. Minimum wage and maximum hours of work laws do not apply to such workers. Nor are they entitled to the vacation or overtime pay that regular employees must receive by law. Unionization is near impossible.

Theoretically, bosses are not supposed to skirt Ontario's Employment Standards Act by arbitrarily reclassifying their workers as self-employed. But plenty do. Sometimes they are brazen. Sometimes they are sly; they fire well-paid unionized workers, contract out their jobs to another firm and let that firm break the law. (Full column here.)
Allan and I have been frankly amazed at the excellent benefits our current jobs offer. I knew that wasn't universal, but I was hoping it was widespread.

Fair employment practices for the working class is one measure of social progress. In this case, unlike in the US, the laws are decent, but enforcement is lax. Clearly Canada has some work to do.

* * * *

Donate to the food drive here, or drop off food at any Loblaws or firehouse.

No comments: