May Day: Time to Recognize Canada’s Precarious Working Class

Today (May 1st) marks the one-hundred-and-twenty-third International Workers’ Day, also referred to as May Day. Many countries around the world observe the annual event celebrating the working class and labour movement with street festivals, community gatherings and demonstrations. But May Day passes largely unnoticed in Canada. This may be because very few Canadians actually believe in a working class anymore.

“Canadians for the most part believe the working class belongs to an era that no longer exists. Whether they are the working poor or the wealthy, Canadians tend to think of themselves as middle class,” says Jacqueline Kennelly, an associate professor of sociology at Carlton University in Ottawa.

Canadians celebrate Labour Day (the first Monday of every September), but the public holiday is better known as the last long weekend of the summer than a day to celebrate the eight-hour work day, a major achievement of the labour movement. For many Canadians the term “working class” conjures up a bygone era of poorly paid male workers slaving away in unsafe factories, steel mills or mines.

“Today’s working class in Canada are the low-wage earners in the services sector," Kennelly told DeSmog Canada. "They wait tables at restaurants, bartend or work in retail. A lot of them are women and recent immigrants to Canada. They are engaged in precarious labour with little to no job security and are worse off than the Canadian working class of thirty years ago."

Seventy-eight percent of working Canadians are employed in the services sector. Health care and social assistance, food and accommodation and retail are the biggest employers

The power of unions and support services for Canadian workers have largely been dismantled by companies and corporate-friendly governments – provincially and federally – since the 1980’s through ‘back-to-work’ and other forms of anti-union of legislation. And companies frustrated with the cost of doing business in Canada have either already left or currently threaten to leave.

The Canadian working class of today would seem to have an advantage over the working class of old: jobs in retail, food and accommodation services are not easily outsourced to other countries. A barista in India can't froth a cappuccino for someone in Toronto.

But service-sector employees are facing their own form of job insecurity these days. If the recent abuses of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers program are any indication, service-sector companies have no problem bringing in cheap foreign labour to flip burgers at McDonalds or man a till a local RBC branch. 

Images of May Day demonstrations from around the world:

Underemployment and Precarious Work Is on the Rise in Canada

Low-wage earners in the services industry are part of the growing number of Canadians who are underemployed or precariously employed, meaning their basic need for paid income is not being met. They are more likely to hold down more than one part-time job to get by, work irregular hours that can take a toll on their health and families and not be part of a union to protect their employment rights.

Underemployment in Canada is on the rise according to the Canadian Labour Congress. The current underemployment rate is 14.2 per cent, which is a 28.6 per cent increase since 2008. This is double the national unemployment rate. This trend is most likely to continue since part-time jobs are growing twice as fast as full time jobs. Nearly 95 per cent of the jobs created in 2013 were part-time jobs according the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.  

Not Talking About Class Ignores the Challenges of Being Working Class

“Canadians have lost the language to talk about class and have difficulty conceptualizing what the working class today looks like,” says Professor Kennelly.

Canadians could be forgiven for thinking the working class no longer exists in this country. The main political parties – Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP – claim to be the defenders of the middle class way of life and the plight of the middle class is a reoccurring theme in the media.

And discussion about class more generally is now often articulated in terms of percentages – the wealthy 1 per cent against the remaining 99 per cent. The idea of a relevant working class has more or less fallen off the public radar.

Such 'class blindness' can lead to social ignorance of the challenges certain social groups face in the 'pursuit of happiness.' 

Professor Kennelly argues it is difficult to tackle problems like inequality between the classes if the existence of class isn't recognized.

“There is the attitude in Canada as well as the U.S. that if you are working poor it is up to you to get yourself out of the situation. The onus is on the self. But class gets reproduced. Someone born to parents who did not go to university are less likely to attend university themselves because their parents by and large do not know how to navigate the system,” Kennelly told DeSmog Canada.  

Image Credit: ShutterStock

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