International Socialist Review: “The political economy
 of low-wage labor” by By Trish Kahle

“The struggles of fast-food, retail, and other service workers since 2012 have thrust the issue of low-wage work into the national spotlight and shifted the national debate over whether to raise the minimum wage from the federally mandated non-tipped wage of $7.25 per hour. Courageous workers like George Walker, a cabin cleaner at Philadelphia International Airport, have begun challenging their impoverishment as corporate profits soar. “I am over fifty,” Walker said, “and tired of living in poverty.” Walker—forced to choose between paying for his wife’s medicine and covering the family’s housing costs—and other workers like him who have joined organizing campaigns, have highlighted the moral depravity of companies that sweep aside the daily struggles of workers in order to maximize profits. Yet even as public opinion has shifted decisively in favor of raising the minimum wage, the size of the low-wage workforce has continued to grow. Nearly 40 percent of American workers earn less than the $15.00 an hour demanded by the low-wage workers movement,1 and the experience of low-wage work is a common one. Still, myths abound about low-wage labor, its origins, and the workers who perform it. The ruling class has much at stake in this fight in which workers confront not only their wages and working conditions, but the ideological apparatus of neoliberalism, which stresses individual responsibility and deregulation. Neoliberal policies, media myths, and the intersection with oppression that many low-wage workers face collude to keep them marginalized. This persists even as their labor, particularly the labor of those in industries like healthcare and education, remain central drivers of economic growth.2″

Read the rest of this excellent article HERE.

Produce Packer Bonduelle proposes on site housing for migrant workers in Tecumseh, On.

The following post consists of my remarks during a town hall meeting to discuss Bonduelle’s proposal to house up to 60 migrant workers on the packing plant property. The proposal necessitates an amendment to an existing zoning by-law ( Restricted Industrial) to residential so the company can renovate an existing building on site to house up to 60 migrant workers – primarily Jamaican men.

What the Windsor Workers’ Education Centre is most concerned with is the isolation and segregation of the workers from the community. They will be housed in a renovated building on the site in a parking lot area. John Landschoot, Plant Operations Manager at Bonduelle stated in his submission that there will be a community BBQ where residents and workers can meet, and he stressed more than once that the workers could be introduced to members of the local Ontario Provincial Police detachment. No one mentioned making sure the workers met members of the Workers’ Centre or Legal Assistance Windsor (LAW) or Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW). These organizations made submissions in defense of the rights of the workers as well.

Adrian Munroe (R) spoke at the Tecumseh public meeting as well. Seen here, he participated in a forum with Canadian born, immigrant and migrant workers at WWEC June 2014.

Adrian Munroe (R) spoke at the Tecumseh public meeting as well. Seen here, he participated in a forum with Canadian born, immigrant and migrant workers at WWEC June 2014.

Members of the community expressed concern over property values (going down) and concern over safety with, frankly, racist comments about feeling unsafe with Black “immigrants” as they referred to them, in the town. There is much education that needs to be done with residents regarding the realities of migrant workers (who are not immigrants, rather a feature of the global economy), the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program managed by the federal government and employers, and the advocacy work that needs to be done to ensure the workers are safe, treated with dignity, and who feel they can speak out in defense of the limited rights they do have as guest workers here. The main feature of global capitalism is the stratification of human beings

In my remarks I make the point that while we work in a global economy, we live in local communities and so have a responsibility to treat migrant workers as community members. Chris Ramsaroop of J4MW put it this way:  if people are concerned about migrant workers being here in an area of high unemployment,  instead of pointing fingers at the migrant workers, we should be demanding a labour strategy from provincial and federal governments. That makes sense, and would include a manufacturing policy that approaches something like full employment and if there are real shortages of labour then workers can come as immigrants on the road to full citizenship. From Tecumseh to China we need to confront the worst aspects of global capitalism that treats workers as simple inputs rather than human beings struggling to live full, meaningful lives.

Public Meeting Packet

After the public meeting which went 30 minutes longer than scheduled, the mayor  committed to holding an open meeting to more fully discuss this issue.

***

Submission on behalf of WWEC:

January 13 2015

Paul Chislett
President, Windsor Workers’ Education Centre

I am here on behalf of Windsor Workers’ Education Centre. The Centre is an independent non – profit organization which educates non-union workers on their rights under employment legislation, advocates on behalf of workers, and helps empower workers so they can exercise their rights in the workplace. Also, in the spring and summer of 2008 I worked on a Chatham area farm with Mexican migrant workers in the fields during the day, and conducted English language instruction in the evening. I can tell you I learned more about the global economy and myself than anything I taught to them. Their courage and tenacity has stayed with me since.

At the centre we see workers – recent and established newcomers, Canadian born and migrant – from throughout Windsor/Essex: in non-union manufacturing, retail, bar and restaurants, and from various packing plants, so this application to amend the zoning by-law is clearly in our area of interest because it directly affects the lives and working conditions of migrant workers in Essex.

The primary concern for us is that the workers housed on the plant site will be isolated from the community and from those who could assist them should they experience difficulty with health and safety, and problems with their conditions of employment. Yes, there are regulations such as the Ontario Health & Safety Act and the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board, and consular help. However, in our experience as advocates it is one thing for a worker to know their rights and quite another to be able to stand up for them. We see Canadian workers with full protection afraid to speak out. Clearly it is even harder for guest workers to speak out.

Let me be frank about consular officials because they are identified on page 6 as advocates fro workers. They generally represent countries with weak labour laws. They want the workers to be cooperative because they don’t want their countries to lose out on economically crucial migrant worker contracts. Often in my understanding the workers are told to just not make trouble – that is to say – don’t speak out. There’s fear all around: fear of losing contracts to supply workers, fear among workers that if they speak out they will be penalized. It’s crucial therefore that workers are not isolated on site but have decent housing in the community where they are free to associate with other residents, and can contact independent advocates who are able to defend their rights without jeopardizing their stay here .

Being housed on the plant property also poses safety concerns, most notably highlighted by the fire last summer. Media reports from last summer indicated it was a pretty intense escape for the workers on shift at the time of the fire. One can only imagine a fire with off shift sleeping workers on site. But in addition to that is the concern that the proposed housing is right in the parking lot, which is quite busy with truck traffic. The outdoor patio is a nice touch but the reality is that home is in a parking lot.

On page 5 the report mentions the document “Recommendations for the Provisions of Seasonal Housing for Migrant Farm Workers”. The report is certainly put together with much expert help but seems to lack input from affected workers or their advocates. We have not seen a scale drawing of the company’s housing proposal so we don’t know if their plan is in accordance with the recommendations document. I have real doubts that workers prefer living on site when that site is a processing plant. (pg 8)
Also, as noted on pg. 6, the suggestion for doing groceries and shopping is that those activities can be carried out by biking and walking if a vehicle isn’t available. The long hours these workers put in lead to exhaustion and accidents on bikes especially. I wouldn’t want to ride a bike with groceries near Tecumseh and Manning. And speaking of the stores, the grocery stores in Tecumseh are all the high priced ones. Tecumseh is an upper middle class town. The migrant workers I know rely on No Frills and the like. They need a choice of housing so they can find a suitable neighbourhood that fits their needs.

The discussion on pages 7-8 around the language of the zoning amendment argues that accessory residential usage should be defined as broadly as possible to include housing 45 – 60 workers. The discussion conflates farms and greenhouses with packaging plants. Farms and greenhouses are not the same as packaging plants. I’ve heard of living on the farm, but living on the factory? The fire proved that a processing plant is no place to live.
The first thing I noticed when looking at the photo in attachment 2 is the clear line of the fence that will segregate the workers from the residential neighbourhood mere meters away. Think of it – look at that picture and houses with swimming pools, several vehicles, and then the migrant housing in a parking lot on plant property. Could the line between haves and have-nots be any starker? The photo says it all – we’ll take your labour but not your company.

I tell people we work in a global economy but we live as human beings in local communities. The global economy as it is can only function with its reliance on low wage migrant workers. It’s even happening in Windsor where workers go to the tar sands – these are Canadian internal migrant workers. Do they have to sleep on factory property in Fort McMurray?

The migrant workers are struggling to raise families just as Canadian workers do, and migrating for work is what they have to do to make it possible – just like Canadian workers are finding out. Local communities, whether in Jamaica, Mexico, Canada and elsewhere suffer because of the absence of their residents. I would think that in all of Canada this area would show the greatest empathy towards migrant workers.

So… since the global economy isn’t going to change anytime soon, I think Windsor Essex could be a leader in how to humanely treat migrant workers with the dignity and respect they deserve. I’m asking that you not isolate and segregate these workers on the plant site, and instead the town and company help find suitable places for the workers to live in the community and make transportation available for their needs so as to be independent guests in our community.

I’ll finish with this: lately there is a lot of talk about the importance of freedom of speech and assembly. Having the workers segregated in on site bunkhouses certainly pushes against those ideals. The workers need to feel free to speak out and they need to know that while they may be guests here, the work they perform entitles them to be treated as community members. I ask that you reconsider in full this proposal and locate the workers in the community with all the support they and their advocates identify as needed.

Reflection on Worker Safety: Paul Chislett

It’s all too common after the death of a worker to read a human interest story about workers and their lives. It’s important to know something behind the names of those killed in industrial accidents and Carolyn Thompson did a great job humanizing Phuong Thang, the worker killed.

As the relevant authorities investigate the accident and the family lays Phuong to rest and grieves, we must realize that a health and safety culture in the workplace does not happen in a vacuum.

I am not presuming to know the situation at the plant where the worker was killed, but the accident has caused me to reflect on my time at the Windsor Workers’ Education Centre where I have met many non-union workers, many of whom were women, and of those, most were recent or established newcomers. They work in manufacturing plants throughout Windsor/Essex.

I was moved by this accident involving a member of the local Vietnamese community. I feel like I know the worker killed: two years ago we met a number of established immigrant women from Vietnam who worked in a non-union manufacturing plant in Windsor. Those and other workers were faced with a $3 per hour wage cut – from $13.80 per hour to the minimum wage – and resigned rather than continue working in a toxic work environment for minimum wage. Their work was fast paced, they had no washroom supplies, the plant was unsafe and dirty, and racist and sexist harassment from management was common. They took a difficult and principled stand and fought for the severance pay they were owed. Now a member of their community has been killed in a second fatal accident at Canadian Electrocoating Limited.

One of the biggest difficulties workers have is knowing how and when to invoke the right to refuse unsafe work. According to the Ministry of Labour website, work refusals in the industrial sector have fallen from 370 in 2002/03 to 117 in 2011/12. In an age of increasing employment precarity for workers the numbers suggest workers may not be reporting unsafe conditions. And the thing is a worker only has to feel there is something unsafe, report that, and a process is supposed to be followed until the situation is resolved to the satisfaction of everyone; not to be told to ‘get back to work we’re too busy for this’. There are great wallet sized cards that can be easily carried by a worker and on it are all one needs to know to report unsafe conditions.

Undoubtedly increasing employment precarity – not just in Windsor, but throughout the country – has eroded workers’ ability to act in their own interests. Many a worker has described the very uncomfortable position of being the “shit disturber” and how fellow workers will steer clear out of fear of being in trouble too if they support their fellow worker. Few want to put their job at risk in the unemployment capital of Canada, even when protected from reprisals.

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act workers have three key rights:
• right to participate to be part of the process of identifying and resolving health and safety concerns
• right to know about any hazards to which they may be exposed
• right to refuse work that they believe is dangerous

The Act also bans reprisals against employees who exercise these rights.

Click on image for more information on work refusals

Click on image for more information on work refusals

Yet even with these rights and protections we know at the centre workers have difficulty in exercising rights under both the Employment Standards Act and the OHSA. Workplaces we have experience with do not respect workers rights. And to make matters actually worse, government regulations assume a level playing field for workers and employers. Also in our experience, workplaces are rife with uncertainty over whether jobs are long term, favouritism, and bullying and harassment. The latter two items are what we are increasingly hearing about. How can health and safety committees operate properly in toxic work environments? In fact on questioning a worker in non-union workplaces on whether there is a health and safety committee they could rely on, invariably there is a shrug and I’m told the people on the committee are the bosses’ favourites. Don’t even get me started on Human Resource departments and personnel.

In our view at the centre, the solutions to dangers and other problems in the workplace will come from workers themselves. The goal of the Windsor Workers’ Education Centre is to educate workers on their rights and, recognizing the unequal power distribution between employers and workers, strategize on how to exercise rights workers have under the law – that’s the tough part.

Instead of waiting for a worker fatality and the resulting eulogy in the media, workers must be able to express their full humanity in the workplace, just as they do in all other aspects of their lives: as parents, homeowners, and so on. That means being fully protected under the law and able to confront workplace challenges and correct problems on an ongoing daily basis. Tepid regulations assuming a level playing field actually make that harder.

Here are some points for workers to consider:
• The workplace is NOT a family ( I hear that a lot). It is a business and power rests with the owners and management.
• Workers can develop a sense of camaraderie and solidarity, and often do with social events outside of work. How can that sense of solidarity be used to create a more equitable share of power in the workplace?
• If something looks and feels unsafe then it probably is. Workers not only have a right to speak out we have a duty to others and their safety: when in doubt in a toxic workplace talk it over with other workers you trust, do some research on the Ministry of Labour website, and/or come in to the workers’ centre. Plan a strategy (that’s especially where we can help) and approach management for a solution.

Here also are a list of duties that fall on all workers (posted on the Worker Health and Safety website:

By law, Ontario workers also have duties in the workplace. These include the duty to:

  • report hazards/unsafe conditions to a supervisor/employer;
  • report injuries/illnesses to a supervisor/employer/worker representative;
  • report the absence or defect in any equipment or protective device to supervisor/employer;
  • wear and use required safety equipment or device.

With power comes responsibility. It is up to employers to ensure workplaces are physically safe and free from harassment and discrimination. Workers then must be vigilant and ready to take action to protect themselves and others if employers are failing to hold up their end of the social contract between them and workers.

The Windsor Workers’ Education Centre can be an advocate in helping workers bridge the power gap in workplaces.

As well, the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) exists to “protect all workers and their communities from occupational injuries and illnesses, support capacity building to address occupational hazards and promote the social, mental and physical well-being of workers and their families.” Also, there is the Windsor Occupational Health Information Service  (WOHIS) located at 3129 Marentette Ave.