Colette Murphy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Atkinson Foundation. She sent this letter on Labour Day, September 6, 2021, to Atkinson’s extended community. You can subscribe to receive her occasional updates here.
I’m standing on the shore of the great lake once known as Niigaani-gichigami at Point Petre, looking toward Soup Harbour where friends live. Their barn’s blue roof is barely visible against the summer sky. A flat limestone shelf stretches across the bay and suggests a footpath from one point to another. But things are not as they seem. There’s much more going on here than meets the eye.
We can’t see the drop from the shelf into deep water. We can’t see the connection between this geography and the economy of this place nor the labour that makes it possible. And we simply cannot see the disruption caused by structural inequality, a prolonged global pandemic, and a long-simmering climate crisis — or the way forward — unless we slow down to pay close attention.
That’s what Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy Stephanie Nolen did. Stephanie spent a year in conversation with people whose lives have been torn apart by COVID-19. Her brilliant Toronto Star series reveals more than a few new cracks in the old system. It tells the stories of those who are stuck in fractures and faults in the very foundation of the system created by white supremacy, colonialism and racism in all its forms. The crisis has made these crevices wider, deeper and harder to escape, but also much easier to see who benefits from a social, political and economic system designed to perpetuate inequality.
Stephanie corrects the misperception that COVID-19 is a great equalizer by showing how only solidarity and collaboration on a massive scale has that kind of power. Being in this together has meant looking out for each other in the short-term — quickly securing incomes and housing, rolling out food and vaccines, rewriting inequitable public policies, and ignoring those who say it can’t be done. In the longer-term, it means harnessing this power to repair and rebuild the system, starting with the foundation of shared values and underpinnings of responsibilities and rights.
This bedrock public policy work should not be rushed or distorted by a single perspective. It takes a coordinated and efficient effort to move toward a vision of something better and to avoid making things worse.
The precambrian rock beneath my feet and everything surrounding me, for example, is becoming a conservation reserve. A year ago, the Province of Ontario set out to protect the natural and cultural heritage of this place. The necessary time, resources and attention have been invested in getting it right in the interest of ecologically sustainable land uses, scientific research, and ecosystem protection.
But at the start of this summer, the minister responsible for protecting workers and their heritage excluded them from an ad hoc advisory committee on the future of their work. He asked committee members to consult widely and report in less than six weeks, making speed more important than principle or logic. The challenge was described as embracing the complexities and opportunities caused or accelerated by the virus. The goal of this process is, therefore, to shore up Ontario’s competitive position in the short-term.
These decisions confused and angered the government’s friends and critics equally. In particular, its role as a steward of the public good is compromised by the rush to facilitate the private interests of Uber and a few other high-profile newcomers to the marketplace. This process is not about the growing number of workers who cannot count on the Employment Standards Act to protect their rights, health or livelihoods because they’ve been misclassified as independent contractors. It’s about the financial security of employers and giving them more flexibility and control over how they manage their workforce in the long-term.
What concerns me the most is the loss of trust between working people and their government at a time when vulnerability is higher than ever. If this pandemic has taught us anything at all it’s that trust takes generations to build and a minute to demolish.
This article by the Toronto Star’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh provides a quick overview if you missed the Minister of Labour’s announcement about the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee in June. Among the almost 350 submissions, you’ll find thoughtful recommendations from Gig Workers United, Justice for Workers, the Ontario Nonprofit Network, the Toronto Community Benefits Network, the Centre for Future Work, the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, and others who remained vigilant despite multiple demands on their time and resources. This post by the Maytree Foundation also provides a valuable perspective.
The fight against misclassification of employees and the degradation of the province’s labour heritage began decades ago. Ground was gained in 2017 with the passage of the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, and lost in 2018 when the new government rescinded it under pressure from those who believe low-income workers should expect less and business owners deserve more.
Since then, the government has prepared for the future by tearing down protections for low-wage and mostly racialized workers, and building up incentives to attract “top talent”. We can agree that a dangerous combination of disruptive technology, and public health, environmental and economic crises has resulted in seismic shifts. We cannot agree, however, with this government’s approach to workforce recovery.
First, their recovery depends on three pillars: a world-class workforce, a strong competitive position, and more flexibility, control, and security for technology platform workers. We want a more traditional “post and beam” recovery that strengthens all workers and the foundation of our economy. In architecture and building construction, a pillar supports a structure; it doesn’t bear any of the load. We need an approach that acknowledges upfront the disproportionate weight carried by women, mostly racialized care workers, and others who are essential to the health and well-being of everyone else.
The Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers Armine Yalniyzan says that jobs — good ones and lots of them — are the first post in this rebuild. Any job can be a good job, she explains, if you design it with the dignity of workers in mind. The adequacy and stability of incomes is another post. The accessibility of basic services, such as child care, public transit, high-speed internet and training that enables career paths and ladders, come next to optimize paid work.
Second, the government’s approach requires changes to labour and employment law, and employment and training programs to promote innovation, investment and growth. We want legislative reform to end the practice of employee misclassification, and to hold all employers accountable for compensating and treating all workers fairly (starting with paid sick days.) This is foundational work comparable to “underpinning” — the method used by the building trades to repair the foundation of a structure that has been significantly damaged.
Third, as for the cross-beams of this recovery, we’d like to see an expansion of economic opportunities for Indigenous, Black and racialized people through community benefits and social procurement practices tied to public infrastructure investments. We’re not ready to redefine the notion of the workplace just yet, as most people still do work that requires them to leave their homes. While the emerging work-from-home culture is attractive to some, the government should expect employers to provide decent workplace conditions including reasonable hours of work, and respect all workers’ right to disconnect from technology. Competition is no excuse for unfair and undignified treatment.
“Competitiveness in no way should be the goal of economic policy: the fundamental goal should be improving opportunities and living conditions for all residents of society,” explains Jim Stanford from The Centre for Future Work in his submission to the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee. “A better question … would be, “How do we ensure that the economic potential of Ontario’s workforce is fully and optimally utilized in work that is safe, productive, sustainable and well-compensated?” This is the question that deserves an answer.
Finally, we’d like to know how the government can collaborate to sustain this far-reaching conversation about the future of work over more than one season. We propose an ongoing process to funnel advice to the government on how to continuously improve the legislative and regulatory framework related to employment standards and labour relations. The Danish model of a “disruption council” shows how labour, business and government can come together to take responsibility for balanced, responsible solutions to labour market challenges.
Make no mistake: this is the time to lift expectations, not lower them. Ontarians pride themselves in a tradition of bringing in crops, raising barns, and rallying around neighbours in need cooperatively. Why then would anyone want a future that divides, isolates and impoverishes workers based on the type of work they do, where they do it, or who they work for?
We want one in which employers and workers are sharing power fairly, not combatants on an invisible battlefield described as the marketplace or workplace depending on the side you’re on. And we want much more for the people whose work is essential but invisible, undervalued, and too often exploited.
Luis Mendoza’s heartbreaking story is featured in Stephanie’s series on what COVID-19 reveals. For eight months each year, Luis traveled to farms in the Niagara region to plant and harvest everything from fruit and vegetables to sunflowers. His most recent employer Henk Sikking immigrated from the Netherlands in 1970 and started Pioneer Flower Farms.
Permanent residency for workers like Luis, however, was a remote option. In theory, migrant workers are protected by the same laws that protect the rest of us. In practice, their rights cannot be enforced because they can be repatriated at any time for any reason. Henk and other business owners have spoken out against unfairness, but it took a global pandemic to bring about a change in the immigration system.
Luis died suddenly in the spring from COVID-19 in his 30th growing season, and shortly after the federal government announced a one-time pathway for migrant workers deemed essential to apply for permanent residency. This decision came too late for him, but his memory will serve as a permanent reminder that hard work is not what makes some people wealthier than others.
The Yellowhead Institute published its report on the impact of the dispossession of Indigenous lands on Indigenous economic livelihoods in the same month that Luis died. It invites a closer look at the relationship between wealth and work, and land and labour, in this relatively young country. These observations have stuck with me:
“Pioneers were batting from third base and yet, celebrated like they got home runs. The difference was that their labour was paid off in free land stolen from Indigenous peoples. First Nations were left stranded on a vast archipelago of reserves and settlements, denied access to their wealth in territory…”
“First Nations adapted to new mixed economies: the Mohawks built skyscrapers in Manhattan; the Algonquins laboured at mink farms in upstate New York; commercial salmon canning enterprises provided income on the coast; interior B.C. nations picked fruit over long, arid summers. Some of these wages were plunged back into Indigenous economies with the purchase of boats, gas, cars, and materials to build cabins on traplines or rivers, and throughout the territory. Businesses like farms, stores, gas stations, restaurants, and craft stands also came and went. Despite this hard work, poverty persisted. Racism or remoteness kept First Nations out of the wage economy on top of the problem of settler encroachments.”
On this 127th Labour Day, I’m celebrating the labour involved in acknowledging and changing this reality. Especially long-time partners like Deena Ladd and Syed Hassan, and newer collaborators like Lindsay Kretschmer and Kris Archie.
Say the names, wrote the late Al Purdy, a poet with deep roots in the traditional territories of the Mohawks and the rest of the Iroquois/Six Nation Confederacy — and the place where I’m spending this day in reflection on land and labour.
Let’s start here. Say the names.
Keep well and stay in touch.
Chief Executive Officer
PS: Here’s the full text of Al Purdy’s poem to follow along with the beautiful recitation of it by Sophia Chu.
SAY THE NAMES — say the names say the names
and listen to yourself
an echo in the mountains
say them like your soul
was listening and overhearing
and you dreamed you dreamed
you were a river
and you were a river
— not the flat borrowed imitations
of foreign names
not Brighton Windsor Trenton
but names that ride the wind
Spillamacheen and Nahanni
Kleena Kleene and Horsefly
Illecillewaet and Whachamacallit
Lillooet and Kluane
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
and the whole sky falling
when the buffalo went down
Similkameen and Nahanni
say them say them remember
if ever you wander elsewhere
“the North as a deed and forever”
Kleena Kleene Nahanni
Osoyoos and Similkameen
say the names
as if they were your soul
lost among the mountains
a soul you mislaid
and found again rejoicing
till the heart stops beating
say the names
— from Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy (2000)
Photo credits: Colette Murphy, Luis Mendoza via The Christian Science Monitor