Eye on the Economy: Canada’s (hidden) dimensions of inequality

It seems to be the Canadian way. While the United States often directly confronts their social injustices, in Canada we tend to pretend they don’t exist, gloss over them, and if that ultimately fails with the hindsight of history, quickly apologize and move on.

Case in point. While the US has directly reported monthly labour force statistics by race for many decades, Canada’s labour force survey (LFS) doesn’t even collect that information. Ditto for persons with disabilities and other equality-seeking groups. And that “see no evil” attitude applies to other major surveys. Even worse, the LFS and most other surveys except the Census explicitly exclude Aboriginal reserves from their surveys. David Macdonald estimates that if they were included, unemployment and poverty rates would be materially higher especially in Western provinces.

It’s not that Canada doesn’t have inequalities to the same degree as the U.S. In fact, the limited data we have show it’s worse, with infant mortality, education, incarceration, unemployment, income, and life expectancy all proportionately worse for Aboriginal Canadians than for African-Americans. And the second class treatment of First Nations people extends to health care and other public services, as the Wellesley Institute has documented.

What little information is available shows that incomes, poverty and employment outcomes for racialized workers, and especially racialized women, in Canada are considerably worse than the average and not getting much better. Women are more likely to be in precarious jobs and information from CUPE’s membership survey shows racialized workers are, too.

In a world where information is power, it’s hard not to see the Harper government’s elimination of funding for the fledging First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Council of Welfare and the long-form census while providing billions in additional tax breaks to top incomes as deeply political acts.

Canada is an increasing diverse country, but we’re far from egalitarian.   Our income gap for women hasn’t declined much in the past decade and is no better than the U.S. But public policy does make a difference: pay gaps for women are smaller where effective pay equity legislation is in place. We need stronger pay equity legislation together with employment equity measures, as these CUPE guides outline. The pay gap for public sector workers and for unionized workers is also considerably smaller than for private sector and non-unionized workers. Quality public services are especially important to ensure everyone can have more equal opportunities.

We now have an opportunity to at least get a badly-needed more accurate and multi-dimensional perspective of our labour force with a redesign of our labour force survey planned. Not only does this continued absence compound social injustices, but it also makes little economic sense. Aboriginal Canadians and immigrants are expected to provide most of Canada’s labour force growth in coming decades—and if we continue to disregard them, we’re neglecting our future.

  • Right to strike. It took a generation and provocative “Essential Services” from Saskatchewan, but 33 years after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms became law, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the right to strike is protected under section 2(d) of the Charter and thereby under the Constitution. The ruling states it is an essential part of a meaningful collective bargaining necessary to help redress the fundamental power imbalance between employers and employees. Labour law expert David Doorey explores the implications it could have for others, including non-unionized workers. It should embolden workers and unions but is also limited as part of a restricted collective bargaining process, argues Charles Smith.
  • Economy droops. Statistics Canada surprised observers when it announced Canada’s economy contracted in November, before oil prices really plunged. More concerning is that economic growth outside of the oil sector was slow, with manufacturing output falling despite the lower dollar and cheaper oil.  While utilities and retail sales grew in November, they were offset by declines elsewhere. With November’s Black Friday eclipsing Boxing Day for shoppers, December’s figures may also disappoint and set the stage for another interest cut in March.
  • Revisions show job growth even worse. Revisions to the Labour Force Survey show that job growth last year was even slower than previously estimated, with an average of only 10,000 jobs created each month, below population growth. The forecast for this year isn’t any better. It’s not only the oil patch and retail sectors that are suffering: despite the lower dollar, there’s been a disturbing number of plant closures and layoffs in manufacturing as well, with hundreds of jobs lost from closures of General Mills, Wrigley’s and Premium Brands plants in Ontario.
  • Share-the-scraps. Robert Reich skewers the growing “share the scraps economy” of Uber, Taskrabbit, Amazon’s Mechanical Turks and others. They parcel out piece work for peanuts, shifting risks to workers with no employment standards, while taking healthy percentages of each transaction. It’s the logical culmination of increasingly precarious employment, taking us back to the exploitative work relations of the 19th century, but with robotic 21st century computer intermediaries.
  • Not so fast say judges in California, who warn both Uber and Lyft in class action suits brought by their drivers that they may have to treat them as employees. Ian McGugan writes that the outcome of these cases will help define what constitutes acceptable labour practices: “At issue is the tough question of whether structuring a market as a loose agglomeration of free agents boosts everyone’s fortunes, or just the bottom line of the organization at the centre of it all.”

All content: Toby Sanger, Economist, CUPE National. @toby_sanger tsanger@cupe.ca

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