Several decades of neoliberal privatizations, tax cuts and attacks on workers’ rights have created a lot of problems in Canadian society.

This newsletter will shed light on these problems, and present possible paths toward a future that empowers the working class, from policy changes to larger reimaginings of key Canadian institutions. Although this newsletter will focus on Canada, much of what will be discussed is broadly applicable to other Western countries.

Before getting to the more radical, structural questions, I want to start this newsletter off by talking about workers. In the midst of this pandemic, we’re all realizing how essential many of the lowest paid workers in our society truly are, including grocery clerks, fast-food workers, cleaners, long-term care employees and others. Yet so far, with some exceptions, they’ve received little more than thanks and applause. This has to change.

A 2019 Center for Economic and Policy Research study ranked Canada second-last among OECD countries for paid time off days, tied with Japan at 10 days and ahead of only the United States. The truth is that even compared to other English-speaking countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, we’re not getting treated fairly.

I spent years working in the service economy: taking orders on the McDonald’s drive thru; making sandwiches at Quiznos; selling building supplies at Home Depot, televisions at Best Buy and mobile phones at Bell and Telus. I knew I wasn’t being fairly compensated for the hours I put in, and I always had some vague notion that things were better elsewhere, but it wasn’t until I went abroad that my suspicions were confirmed.

In 2015, I applied for an Australian working holiday visa, figuring if I was going to work a low-paying job, I might as well do it elsewhere. I moved from St. John’s to Melbourne, and got a job in a health insurance call centre. I couldn’t believe the difference.

My starting wage was around $52,000, or about $26 an hour, plus 7 per cent in a pension plan I was able to withdraw when I left. On top of that, overtime was paid at time-and-a-half for the first four hours in a two-week period, then double time for anything more. Public holidays were paid at 250 per cent. There were also bonuses for those on casual contracts and working on evenings and weekends. I was making more than I ever had in my life, and on top of that, I got four weeks of paid vacation.

To put that into context, I returned to St. John’s in 2018 and needed some cash before going back to university, so I took another job in an insurance call centre. This time I got $17 an hour, and was told I could get a raise and permanent contract once I proved I was “committed” to the job after about six months. It was insulting. I knew I was worth more, but we have a system where workers are so disempowered many feel they just have to accept the terrible conditions on offer. Needless to say, I was gone within a month.

Across Canada, minimum wage ranges from $11.32 in Saskatchewan to $15 in Alberta, and it doesn’t even meet the actual cost of living in most communities. The fight for a $15 minimum wage has had some success across the country, but it’s not good enough.

In Australia, the minimum wage is set nationally and has been rising faster than inflation in recent years. It’s currently $19.49 AUD, and is part of the reason wages, especially at the bottom end of the scale, are notably higher than in Canada. In New Zealand, the minimum wage will hit $20 NZD next year.

Australians and New Zealanders are also guaranteed a minimum of four weeks of paid vacation, compared to the two weeks that most low-wage Canadian workers receive.

Workers in some continental European countries have it even better.

A recent New York Times article about the conditions of McDonald’s workers in Denmark noted:

Starting pay for the humblest burger-flipper at McDonald’s in Denmark is about $22 an hour once various pay supplements are included. The McDonald’s workers in Denmark get six weeks of paid vacation a year, life insurance, a year’s paid maternity leave and a pension plan. And like all Danes, they enjoy universal medical insurance and paid sick leave 

Meanwhile, I’ll never forget how my managers at McDonald’s back around 2007 would schedule all of our performance reviews to happen right before provincial wage increases so our measly raises would be wiped out. 

This is the time to demand better for workers. Temporary wage increases or “heroes” bonuses are an insult, and they’re already being rolled back by some employers. The lowest paid workers always play an essential role and deserve to live with dignity, not just while a pandemic is threatening their lives.

It’s time for a new social contract that includes a $20 minimum wage with annual inflation increases, a minimum of four weeks of paid vacation and paid sick leave. Business won’t have much room to oppose these measures, given that many are being propped up by the government anyway and public opinion is on the workers’ side.

Most of these decisions may be made at a provincial level, but that doesn’t mean a federal government can’t push things in the right direction. They can raise the federal minimum wage, which would benefit approximately a million workers and set a standard for provinces to follow, as well as holding a First Ministers’ conference to hammer out a new deal for workers.

If the premiers won’t play ball — or even if most will — the government can also provide a jobs guarantee as part of a Green New Deal to put Canadians back to work while meeting our climate goals and forcing private employers to match higher employment standards or risk losing their workers.

None of this will simply be handed to workers by the government or employers. It will have to be demanded by unions and social movements, and we shouldn’t just stop at beefing up benefits. Without greater power for workers in the future, those gains could be rolled back or frozen by right-wing governments, as we saw Alberta and Ontario premiers Jason Kenney and Doug Ford do with minimum wage and labour reforms, or chipped away at over decades, which is exactly how we got to this point.

But beyond reforms in favour of workers, we need a broader transformation of how we organize society and the economy, and those are the things we’ll be building toward in each issue of this newsletter. It’s clear that workers need more control over the economy and their workplaces — we’ll talk about that next week.

Perspectives from around the world

Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work, explains in the Toronto Star that Canada’s real unemployment rate is far higher than 13 per cent.

Ryan Hayes and Edward Hon-Sing Wong detail in Briarpatch the worker organizing happening across Canada in the midst of the pandemic.

Eleanor Ainge Roy, a journalist at The Guardian, writes that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is encouraging employers to adopt a four-day week and more flexible working options.

Will Davies, a political economy professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, writes for the Political Economy Research Centre that by putting markets on hold, the pandemic is showing us other ways of finding value.

Sara Mojtehedzadeh, labour reporter at the Toronto Star, has a new podcast looking at the fight between Toronto’s food couriers and app companies.

Grace Blakeley, author of “Stolen: How to Save the World From Financialisation,” argues in Progressive International that we already live in a planned economy; it’s just not planned for us.

Adam Tooze, author of “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World,” does a deep dive in Foreign Policy into the power and politics of central banks, with particular emphasis on recent developments in the European Union.

Sam Elkin, coordinating lawyer at the LGBTIQ Legal Service in Melbourne, wrote in Overland comparing the modern pandemic experience to the 1665 bubonic plague in London.This week on my podcast, Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to “Lurking: How A Person Became A User” author Joanne McNeil about how our experience online has evolved over the past three decades, and law professor Veena Dubal about how Uber’s war on drivers is having a devastating impact during the pandemic.

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