Sunday, April 20, 2014

Long Live the Wage Slave

A friend of mine, someone who I worked beside, used to refer to “us” the employees at that company as “wage slaves”.  What he meant by that, as he explained to me, is that companies generally pay only enough to keep employees. 

Not to keep them happy, just to keep them.

There is a point, he explained, at which people will stop looking for work because they are earning “enough”.  Now we were not getting rich by any means, but we were content.  Most of us were able to pay our bills, buy some luxuries, and set some aside for savings.  Depending on your priorities you could do pretty good working there.

Actually it’s an old idea.  Henry Ford was one of the first, if not the first to use it.

Henry had a problem.  He was selling Model T cars faster than he could make them.  Or rather he could have sold more if he had been able to make them, but there was a problem with production.

Ford Motors at that time was paying the same wages as most other manufacturers at that time.  So it really didn’t matter if you worked for Ford or someone else, you were going to make similar wages.

Now working in an auto plant at that time was dirty and dangerous, people would just quit because they didn’t like it, people would take sick days or whatever because there was no incentive to stay.  Ford realized that he was spending more money training new people than these new people were producing for him (trainees are slow and require a trainer) and absenteeism was slowing production even more.

Ford needed a new idea.  He decided to pay his people an outrageous wage and to shorten the work week and shorten the work day as well.  His competitors thought he’d lost it.  He’ll be out of business in no time they claimed.

What actually happened was the opposite.  Productivity soared, people were willing to work and to work hard to keep their Ford Wage, absenteeism dropped dramatically for the same reason.  Will all the workers showing up and not needing to train new people every day, Ford had hit the mother lode.  His laughing competitors stopped snickering and started to copy him because they were losing their workers as everyone wanted to work for Ford and worse, they were losing sales.

Contrast that with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFW) that we have in place here in Canada.  If Henry Ford could have done this, the world would be a vastly different place.

Businesses apply to the government to allow them to bring in foreign workers because of a supposed lack of available people to work those jobs with the appropriate skill set. 

Arguably there is a need to bring in some out of country workers for jobs that require a special set of skills.  Let’s say the company purchased a new piece of equipment from a foreign supplier and needs someone to come with that piece of equipment to train the staff on how to use and maintain that equipment.  That makes sense.

TFWs in the service industry?  That’s another thing all together.

It’s not just the service industry, there are others that are using the TFW to displace or to avoid hiring people who have or are willing to learn the necessary skills to perform the duties required by these employers.

Why would they do that?  Employee retention is a big issue here.  These companies spend time and money to train people to be valuable to their company and these people may leave if they see a better offer or a job closer to home that needs the same skills as they learned with the original company.

This is where Henry Ford shook up the world.  He was willing to make life better for the workers to retain them.  With TFWs, employers don’t have to.

What happens when you become a TFW?

In some recent news stories these workers are used and housed by the employer.  They make close to the same wage if not the same wage as Canadian workers, but the Canadian worker has the ability to quit.

The TFW is under contract to work for the employer, the TFW cannot simply quit for another job.  If the TFW doesn’t keep the employer happy though, the TFW can be fired back to wherever he or she came from.

How would you like to live under those terms?

If your employer was abusive, let’s say scheduling your 8 hour shift to the morning rush for 4 hours and the supper rush for 4 hours, how long would you work there? 

We have labour standards about safety and hours of work and overtime but they are only available to people who have the ability to complain to the authorities.  If your boss had the power to ship you back to the Philippines or Belize because you were a “bad worker” who went to the Labour Board because you were doing unsafe work, would you report it?

We saw the case with the Royal Bank where current employees were being forced to train their TFW replacements before they were tossed into the street.  We’ve seen the reports of Canadians in the fast food industry having their shifts reduced to accommodate TFWs who have to be given a full week of work each week.  Employers who allegedly won’t even look at Canadian resumes because they would rather hire TFWs, the list goes on.

The employers argue that the TFWs are better workers, and that may be, but fear is a wonderful motivator.  And living in fear is no way to live.

I’m sure that TFWs are good workers even without having to be scared of losing their jobs to perform well.  Many of them see this as a means to emigrate to Canada because they see a better life in Canada than they would see back in their native countries.

I’m equally sure there are good employers who treat their TFWs with the same respect that they would show a Canadian employee.

But the question still remains, why are we importing workers to work at burger chains and coffee chains when we have so many people looking for work? 

Being a wage slave used to be a voluntary position.  If you were treated OK and the pay wasn’t bad, you’d stay with your employer.  The TFW model has flipped this on its head.  These people are locked in to jobs that they may be overqualified for and they have no real ability to change things.  They are virtual slaves to their employers, but they do get a wage for their work.

Displacing the parttimers.

Flipping burgers and pouring coffee used to be the domain of the part time worker, usually students.  They were able to buy themselves the things that they wanted or to save for the future, maybe towards a university education.  These young part timers were often working their first jobs, they were learning the skills to work in full time positions down the road, and they are being cheated out of this part of their education by greedy employers and a government that just doesn’t seem to have a clue.

The solution is simple.  The government could very easily change the policies to prevent abuses of the system, but they seem loathe to do that.  Why?  I don’t know, maybe it’s because employers tend to have more money to donate to political parties than their employees do?

Around the corner from where I live is a variety store.  When I go to that store, the person working the counter is usually one of the owners.  When I get pizza, I see the owners working in the shop as well.  This used to be normal for smaller businesses.  More and more if you look at the ownership signs that often appear at the entrance was you’ll see that the business is owned by XYZ Enterprises or a numbered company.

These are the guys that need the cheap labour that can’t walk away.  They fronted the money for the franchise and that’s all they think they should be required to do.  If you cannot make a go of it by paying a decent wage or without risking high turnover then you’re in the wrong business.  If you’re not willing to stand behind the counter or flip burgers yourself, you’re in the wrong business.

And the government should not be in the business of letting you import slaves, even if you do pay them (the slaves, that is).

Laters, BC

No comments:

Post a Comment