My two guests this week are Harsha Walia and Roger Rashi, talking on two different topics, but both of very immediate interest. First, Harsha Walia, author of Undoing Border Imperialism and long-time anti-racist and migrant rights activist, discusses the changes to Canada’s immigration system over the past decade of Conservative rule. Of course, we also touch on Canada’s response to the refugee crisis and the heartening Refugees Welcome protests (in which Harsha had no small role). My second guest, Roger Rashi, speaks to me about the coming wave of protests in Quebec and what is shaping up to be a hot autumn in that province. Roger is a longtime political and social activist from Quebec; he presently works for Alternatives in Montreal.
Yesterday, I took a look at the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and how it helps enforce labour discipline on all workers, and low-wage workers in particular. Today, I want to explore the migration side of the migrant worker equation. The context of migration not only makes it easier for employers to exploit TFWs, it also serves to obscure the common core of labour solidarity that should be at the basis of responses to the greater labour discipline that the TFWP enables.
While it is a truism that migrant labour built Canada, this same migrant labour has long been used to discipline domestic workers. Both facts are imprinted into the history of Canada. Today is no different and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) is at the centre of debates about migrant labour. Often missing from the debate are the deep links between labour policy, (im)migration policy and the ways these interact to undermine the power and solidarity of workers.
Yesterday’s federal budget was a non-event. Indeed, the no-surprises budget was itself no surprise: the Conservatives have long done their fiscal policy dirty work in omnibus bills and other dark corners scattered throughout the legislature, Crown corporations and federal agencies. This leaves the media circus of budget day a very stereotypically Canadian mix of polite and boring. Canada’s is a slow-motion austerity and the current budget is a continuation.
This post is an appendix of sorts to my article, “Fired by Walmart for Christmas”, to be published this weekend by Common Dreams. In the article, I describe the stresses and difficulties faced by Walmart workers during the holidays. Overwork, a climate of fear and barely-organized chaos make for taxing shifts at work. Low wages, insufficient hours and inadequate benefits stretch budgets and make it harder to find holiday joy at home. A Walmart Christmas could have easily been written by Dickens.
Here, I want to focus on an aspect of Walmart’s practices that stood out from my interviews with long-time Walmart employees and OUR Walmart organizers: the increased use of temporary workers and the greater degree of precarity experienced by all workers at the retail giant. The workers and organizers I interviewed all described a long-term shift in company culture. From the perspective of veteran employees, the company has gone from one that at least outwardly respects its workers to one solely focused on profit, even at immense cost to worker well-being. My interviewees all claimed this change took place during the transition in management after the death of founder Sam Walton.
Make no mistake: Walmart was always focused on cost-cutting. However, through a shrewd mix of charisma and good business sense, Walton was able to maintain a sense of community amongst his employees. He knew what he needed to do to keep costs down, but he also knew how to do it in a way that did not completely alienate and break his own employees.
In the two decades since his passing, Walmart has changed. Without Walton’s calculated approach to cost savings, working conditions have deteriorated. Wages, benefits and hours have all been reduced. In addition, without Walton’s charisma, not even a veneer of respect for workers remains. Today’s Walmart employees are not only tired, poor and often on social assistance; they are also deeply disheartened and afraid.
This is the third and final post in what has become a three-part series on the puzzle of high profitability and low investment in the Canadian economy. In the first part, I looked at some data that shows the existence of the puzzle and explored a few of the factors that could be behind it. The follow-up post outlined broadly Keynesian and Marxian solutions aimed at raising investment: the former based on stimulating demand, the latter on eliminating overcapacity and increasing the relative profitability of productive capital. Here, I want to continue the thoughts that concluded the second part, namely that the Harper government’s preferred response to the puzzle has been neither demand stimulation nor industrial policy. Instead, it has been austerity – a strategy by no means accidental, but in fact designed to support the status quo of high profitability and low investment.
Austerity is not an isolated Canadian phenomenon nor is it a new one. The neoliberal era that began sometime in the 1970s has seen austerity in one form or another applied worldwide. Economic crises have especially provided governments with excuses to institute or continue austerity policies that would not have been difficult to institute otherwise. While Canada did not experience the latest economic crisis to the same extent as a number of other countries, it has seen a more moderate version of many of the same trends – such as slower growth and lower employment. The crisis was large enough to allow the Harper government to continue and deepen a tentative austerity regime. While Canada has not pursued austerity programs as spectacular as some, for example the UK or Spain, the Conservative government has, nevertheless, succeeded in substantially reducing the size of government, small cut by small cut. While Canadian austerity policies predate the crisis, the crisis has only helped to entrench them and further orient them towards propping up profitability.