The Condition of Canadian Workers (Twentieth Century)
Canada’s industrialization (1880 – 1914) brought about great increases in productivity but the rapid economic development did not benefit all social classes equally. In the midst of growing prosperity for some, workers laboured in horrible conditions. The factories they worked at were dirty and unsafe: thousands of workers died every year as a result of hazardous conditions at their workplace. Employers had great power over their workers and demanded a very long work day: workers often worked for ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. Employers also fined workers for talking or for arriving late – the latter measure encouraged workers to arrive early to work and stay late because the employer’s clock was, in some cases, set and reset to benefit the employer’s bottom line. At this time, there was no unemployment insurance and workers could be fired or laid off whenever it suited the employer. Child labour was not yet abolished and young boys and girls, who were from very poor families, were often forced to enter the workforce at the age of 11 or 12 to help their families survive. The wages they received were substantially below those of adult male workers. However, despite receiving lower pay, children faced the same dangerous working conditions as adult workers, most of whom were men because women were relegated to the home.
The working class family’s living conditions were also harsh as many lived in small, damp, poorly lighted and heated rooms within boarding houses. A working class family of five often lived on the floor of a house that only had one or two rooms: there was a shortage of houses given the influx of Canadians to urban areas. Working class families often obtained their water from collecting rainwater or from a communal tap outside the house. Toilets were often located at the back of the house near the water supply, this meant that cholera, typhoid and diphtheria were common among the working class. With the advent of the streetcar and the automobile, wealthier families moved out of urban centres to the suburbs, clean air and open spaces. Churches and social clubs followed the flight of wealthier families to the surburbs.
Working class families were additionally burdened by the rising cost of living in urban areas. Few families could afford to eat well and most at only potatoes, bread, oatmeal and milk. In 1901, the cost of living was about $13.38 a week in urban areas but the average male worker only made $8.25 a week. This required that children enter the workforce as soon as possible and married women, who rarely went back to the workforce after marriage unless the family was very impoverished, make money through taking in boarders, part-time sewing and offering laundry services.
The influx of workers to urban areas, the lack of government labour regulations (abolishing child labour, enforcing workplace safety rules, setting a maximum work day, etc.) and the overwhelming power that employers had over workers created the conditions that gave rise to the modern union movement. To counter the effects of an unregulated market economy, workers joined together to form unions to increase their bargaining power vis-à-vis employers. In Canada workers went on strike in increasing numbers to demand better pay, improved working conditions, abolishment of child labour, a minimum wage and shorter working hours (the Winnipeg general strike of 1919 is a well-known example). Together with social reformers, unions helped elect pro-labour representatives to parliament and throughout the early twentieth-century continued to advocate for labour reform in the media and through direct action (striking). During the Second World War labour unions in Canada grew and between 1940 and 1945 union membership doubled until 700 000 workers were in a union. In response to a wave of strikes during WWII and after years of labour agitation and education, the Federal government recognized the right of workers in certain industries to join unions and bargain collectively. In 1940 the Federal government, under the control of the Liberal leader, William Lyon Mackenzie King, created an unemployment insurance plan, partly to stave off the more labour friendly political party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). In the 1960s the Canadian federal government improved the public pension system and followed the example set by the Saskatchewan government and provided financial support for provincial medicareprograms that were universal, comprehensive and publically administered. As a result of union organization and agitation, workers won rights and benefits for themselves and others.
The Condition of Canadian Workers (Twenty-First Century)
As a result of Globalization workers are facing increased competition from workers all over the world. With the signing of Free Trade Agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) companies can more easily relocate to lower wage areas in order to cut costs. These other countries may also have lower environmental regulations on production and allow the hiring of child workers. Canadian workers are thus increasingly facing competition from workers all over the world. Companies that can relocate to other areas are able to dissuade workers from joining unions by threatening to relocate and fire all the workers. Workers who face this tough global competition are confronted with job insecurity, lower benefits and lower pay. Instead of a “job for life” Canadian workers are increasing only able to find contract or part-time work. Pension coverage for workers has also fallen as companies have cut benefits.
An additional hurdle facing those looking for well paying employment is the fact that the majority of future jobs, according to the federal government, are expected to require post-secondary education degrees. With rising tuition costs, post-secondary education and retraining costs are sometimes too expensive for some workers, though government loans are available to help those who wish to attend college or university but cannot afford to. Though increased education carries with it great benefits, any increase post-secondary educated workers will also fuel a race to expand the number of qualifications one has in order to differentiate oneself from other workers. If bachelor’s degrees are necessary for entry-level positions then workers will increasingly pursue masters or doctoral degrees or numerous college certificates to help them “stand out” from other workers. The concern is that this increased competition is stressful for workers who have to worry that they are more qualified than other workers and that many of the jobs do not require the skills and knowledge workers have spent so much to obtain.
Those workers who do not have a post-secondary degree or who cannot find a job within their field will face increased competition at home as Canada continues to have too many workers competing for low-skilled manufacturing, utilities, sales and services jobs within Canada (further depressing wages in these occupations). Low skilled workers are also threatened with advances in technology which make their jobs redundant; and while technological innovation creates new jobs, those workers who were made obsolete are seldom hired for jobs that require a different skill-set.
This constant change and competition emblematic of this era of globalization has created an environment of insecurity where the power between employers and workers has shifted. Since 1970 worker productivity has soared but for many in the working class their wages have barely risen. Instead corporate profits and CEO pay have soared and income inequality continues to increase. Public employees who have a higher unionization rate are currently criticized for being able to hold on to the benefits they have won through collective bargaining. As governments are faced with increased debt as a result of the recent economic crisis pressure grows to lay off public workers and/or decrease their pay and benefits. Governments are also facing pressure to reduce their expenditures on social programs (health, education, welfare, etc.) in order to pay down their debt.
In the twenty-first century, Canadian workers face many challenges. There is a growing trend in which there are few well-paying stable jobs and many precarious low-paying jobs. Workers are told that they should submit to continually “life long learning” so that they can be ready for and create the jobs of the future. Others are concerned that further education is not the solution and workers must gain back the control they lost from employers.
Unemployment insurance: a program that provides workers who have been laid off from work with money each month while they try to find another job.
Cholera: a bacterial infection transmitted by contaminated food and water. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting and sever dehydration.
Typhoid: a serious infection caused by Salmonella typhosa ingested with food or water.
Diphtheria: an acute infectious disease caused by the bacillus Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The disease causes difficulty in breathing, high fever, and weakness. The toxin is particularly harmful to the tissues of the heart and central nervous system.
Unregulated market economy: an economy that operates by voluntary exchange in a free market and is not planned or controlled by a central authority; a capitalistic economy with little government interference.
Labour agitation: acts by labour organization (unions) that attempt to stir up public opinion for laws that benefit workers.
Medicare: a government sponsored health program that provides health care for all Canadian citizens.
Globalization: a process in which countries becoming more economically, politically and culturally integrated. This process is aided through technological inventions (information technologies, airplanes, containerization, etc.) and trade agreements.
Free Trade Agreements: Trade agreements that lower tariffs and assist the movement of goods across borders.
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA): A free trade agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico.
What were the problems facing Canadian workers in the twentieth Century?
How did Canadian workers attempt to overcome these problems
What are the problems facing Canadian workers in the twenty-first century?
How do you think Canadian workers might be able to overcome these problems?