The globalization of the workforce

It used to be understood that a healthy economy included low unemployment and available jobs right across the country. Pockets of persistently high unemployment would receive help in stimulus investments and in enhanced unemployment insurance coverage.

Now, all that has changed. Just as ownership of raw resources is globalized, with multinationals from all around the world owning oil sands mines and wanting to ship out raw bitumen, so too is labour unhinged from local. Without loyalty to what is local or even what is Canadian, workers are state-less, pressured by competitive forces and down-sizing. Employment is precarious.

It skews local economies and undermines sustainability. The oil sands of northern Alberta need labour, so the unemployed of other regions (especially Atlantic Canada) are recruited to work several weeks on/several weeks off, commuting by jet. True, the men who come home have money in their pockets, but the local communities to which they return are hollowing out. It is almost impossible to find a plumber or an electrician in a small Maritime community. They are out west.

Workers are also available off-shore. CEOs are encouraged to abandon Canadian workers in preference for outsourced labour from India. Their reward is a multi-million dollar bonus as they hand out pink slips to Canadians and out-source offshore. RBC made headlines recently when it laid off its workers, but asked some to stay to train their replacements—outsourced staff in India.

The other dramatic labour trend is in the increase of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW). The whole concept of TFW is offensive. The workers in this category are entirely beholden to the one employer who has brought them to Canada. They cannot complain of unsafe working conditions or any other abuse without fear that their complaint will get them sent home. The programme is inherently exploitative of the workers, who attain no rights or priority to move to Canada permanently.

Rather than send the work to India, the TFW programme brings the cheap labour here. The use of the programme has been growing rapidly. Since the mid-2000s reliance on TFW has expanded dramatically, more than tripling in eight years. For the first time, in 2008, the number of new permanent residents accepted in Canada was smaller than the number of TFW. By December 2012, there were over 338,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada. The whole scheme is looking a lot less ‘temporary.’

Two of my constituents have bucked the trend by committing themselves to local labour. Both will tell you they are making a profit, while doing good for the community.

Jerry Horel is VP Engineering at local IT company Caffeinated Turtle Enterprises Inc. Jerry spelled out for me a comparison of outsourcing work to India and hiring local; it was a cost saving to hire local.

The outsourcing company in India claimed he would save money using their services. He required an engineering contract to build multi-media SDK (software development kit) for Android and Apple IOS devices. Instead, he went to the University of Victoria Co-op programme, where he was able to hire two cracker-jack young engineers on an eight month contract. The Indian out-sourcing firm insisted on a one year contract. The UVic Co-op students, at more than $20/hour, not only saved him $40,000 compared to outsourcing in India, they also took the project to another level, piggy-backing a second product for the same customer. Additional bonus—jobs for Canadians and the money they spent stayed local.

Jerry concluded, ‘While outsourcing works in some limited environments for large companies building large projects, it makes absolutely no sense for IT projects within government or small business environments.”

My other story is from Peninsula farmer Bryce Rashleigh. When the family farm was sold, he converted his farming model to working other peoples’ fields. This summer, for example, he harvested the hay off 37 farms – over 640 acres. He also plants grains on other properties and has been having great success with lentils. I asked him where he found his workers, expecting him to rely, as do so many other farm operations, with TFW.

When he told me he hired young people from the community, I expressed surprise and said, ‘I keep being told Canadian kids won’t do that kind of work.’ He replied, ‘They will if you pay them.’

The harvest this year ran for 31 days straight, with a crew of 35 people working to harvest grains and bale hay. Bryce paid a range of $18- 26/hour. He is a principled and idealistic farmer. He wants to train young people as future farmers. He supports the community and has had a loyal, seasonal crew, seeing many kids work with him from high school through university.

At the close of harvest, he and his family host a celebratory feast to give thanks. I attended this fall and have to admit being pretty choked up as he distributed bonuses, while the young people thanked him for the chance to work.

Youth unemployment in Canada is at 14%. What if we paid Canadian kids and trained them to take those jobs? What if we treated ‘labour’ as ‘people?’.