Forced labour is not dead; rather it has just been normalized into our capitalist system in the name of free enterprise.
During a recent stay on one of the Gulf Islands, I started at a part-time job at a grocery store to help out since the population is primarily seniors and they were desperate for help. COVID fears. The job paid minimum wage was $15 an hour which was okay because I didn’t need the money. The minimum wage in the territories is $15.30.
It did not take long to realize why they were having a hard time finding and retaining employees. Much like the NWT, there is a severe housing crisis in B.C. and rental rates are through the roof if you could find a place at all. Sound familiar?
It turned out that the store belonged to the Jim Pattison group which, like so many other big corporations, raked in the big bucks during COVID, some recording their best profits ever. The store where I worked was chronically short staffed.
People with families simply could not afford to work there because at $15 an hour, even with two people working full time, they did not make enough to pay rent and feed the kids.
The system is not working.
Last month, Alternatives North released a paper called the Northwest Territories 2022 Living Wage in which, after a lengthy study conducted throughout the north, researchers found that a two-parent family with two kids in Yellowknife needed $23.28 an hour to cover their basic, no frills living expenses. Yet how many of the larger companies here continue to offer only minimum wages which is why so many workers take on more than one job to meet their expenses?
In B.C., many of the workers were seniors or young people in school. In the territories, some fall into that category but many are new immigrants and temporary foreign workers who try to escape war and poverty in their own country coming here to eek out better lives for themselves. However, they quickly learn that getting ahead requires backbreaking effort that is often not appreciated by employers or consumers.
Where I worked, much like many of the larger stores Yellowknife, there were no perks for employees. Food such as buns, meat ends, extra soup and produce were thrown out rather than offered to employees. Some expired goods were given to local charities but employees who make minimum wage received nothing.
None of the employees, much like here, get thanks at the end of the day but are critically scrutinized by supervisors adding to the overall tension. It was difficult to stay polite through demanding eight-hour shifts with not enough help.
Adding insult to injury, consumers are often not kind to service workers either failing to offer the respect they deserve. These workers are doing the best they can with the skills they have in a challenging environment. We can only imagine how difficult it is for them to return home after long physically demanding days to carry out regular household functions.
Offering a minimum wage is not a reflection on the workers, but on the companies themselves who too often put profit before people and this has become endemic in our society.
If we cared about people, we would look at a cooperative model offering minimum wages until the business could afford to pay more. Consumers would understand the importance of this model and support higher prices knowing that they are contributing to a better life for others instead of always just being in it for themselves as too many big business owners are.
In the meantime, those companies which are raking in the big bucks, should really take a long hard look at company ethics that allows them to pad their bank accounts at the expense of workers, keeping them stuck in a system which makes it almost impossible to get ahead.
It makes many scratch their head at the efficacy of capitalism.
No… underpaid labour is not dead. It merely went underground and re-emerged with a different face but same components. People are people. It is only when we learn to respect the value of each by paying fair wages and appreciating effort that our world will reflect a more humane nature.
Let’s hope with the new living wage model and more businesses signing on we see more big companies do the right thing.