Sunday, September 12, 2010

Paid Labour - a failing social construct?

I was reading the news the other day - much like the Beatles - and decided to read about how Canada's unemployment rate went above 8% to 8.1% in the month of August. Since I live in a very hot job market I'm really an on-looker but I still wonder what the real percentage of people are actually looking for work when these numbers are published. Then I wandering into the comments. The first two comments were anti-Harper comments along the line of - Go Harper raise that unemployment rate. Since we have a capitalist (with safety net) society, I wonder what on earth that means? Is the government supposed to force employers to increase employees? Are our tax dollars supposed to go to an inflated public service so more people can be employed? How much more welcoming can our government be towards business and would it make a difference?

The Industrial Revolution didn't bring about a huge change in labour for most people. Instead of majority of people being peasants they moved to the big city and became labourers. Sure labourer had more autonomy than peasants and seemingly more ability to move up the ladder but most were content to stay where they were. Most people could still identify the fruits of their labour. Good companies fostered paternalism that replaced the serf/lord relationship. You can see it in pictures from the early 1900s. Work for a company and they had housing for you at a reduced rate and did family type stuff like picnics. And so it went  through 2 world wars and for as long as lots of people were needed to make stuff. Things were by no means perfect but basically you worked and got paid. If you did a good job, you stayed employed and even got raises - that was the social contract.

To me that contract seems to be failing and I can pinpoint when it happened in Alberta. The economic downturn in the early '90s. Employees were laid off because companies would go under if they didn't. Employees went along on the unspoken understanding that when times got better, jobs would return. Then the government wanted to reduce costs by 5% so the nurses trimmed and retired enough to offer that 5%. In return the provincial government said - thanks, now *we'll * implement the 5% reduction. The thing I noticed the most about that 5% cut was that it affected jobs performed mostly by women; teachers, administrators and nurses - and male feminists rarely speak out in those situations - they need their jobs too. In Alberta, the public sector lead the way in fracturing the work contract. Businesses started to lay off if they weren't going to make their profits for the year as it was an easy way to cut costs. Lose some people, save their wages and redistribute work. Jobs have returned but the stability of knowing that if you do a *good job* your job will be there never has. Sure you can't get fired but make up some reason to slow down and get rid of a position....

Fast forward to the present. People making the most money don't seem to contribute to the actual manufacture of a product. The economy has recovered to a great extent yet there is still high unemployment rates; at this point jobs aren't coming back so new ones have to be created but by who? Everyone seems to be buying into the idea that company profitability is THE reason for ... everything!  Why would new jobs be created when they can squeeze the people they have. Management disrespects people's skills and knowledge then complains that the quality of employee isn't the same as it used to be AND they are rewarded in the form of tax cuts from the government.

Yet I still hear about an upcoming labour shortage as baby boomers retire. How is this possible? When I was growing up it was a given that the work day would shorten and we would have lots of time to do fun stuff. It seems like all the "leisure time" has been concentrated to create a higher unemployment rate. There is less jobs to be had and more automation. Minimum wage here seems reasonable but how many part time jobs do you need to cover expenses?  Questions, questions. Our economy seems to be based on infinite growth - or at least infinite for now.