Policies for the working poor

The Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom looks at the choices we make that keep the poor, um, poor. Walkom looks only at the working poor, not the welfare poor. If we add to the pile the numerous regressive reforms to provincial welfare programs the picture is even uglier.

There’s much we can do to combat poverty
Enforcing current laws would help

Sep. 30, 2006.

THOMAS WALKOM

… At one level, poverty is a deliberate policy. The working poor are poor mainly because their employers don’t want to pay them very much. This cheap wage policy is aided and abetted by governments in a host of ways — by making it difficult to unionize low-wage workers, by scaling back unemployment benefits, by failing to enforce even the weak labour standards that do exist.

This is not to say that poverty is easy to eliminate. The poor, as someone once noted, will always be with us. But recent studies show that the scale of inequality in North America has accelerated dramatically over the past 25 years.

… All of this directly affects the working poor. If, thanks to the “elite agenda,” it is near impossible for most workers to collect unemployment benefits (as it has been since the mid-’90s), the pool of workers competing for low-wage jobs grows — which in turn keeps those wages down.In effect, there are now two types of workers in Canada. The lucky ones have full-time, often unionized, jobs with good wages and benefits such as pensions. The less fortunate make do with non-standard work. They may work at two or three part-time jobs; they may be temporary workers, contract workers or those who, while doing the work of normal corporate employees, are listed on the books as self-employed.

In the past, the term “self-employed” was usually applied to well-paid professionals like doctors and lawyers. Now, all kinds of low-wage workers — from delivery people to television researchers — are treated by their bosses as self-employed. The reason? An employer does not have to pay employment insurance or Canada Pension Plan premiums for self-employed workers. Minimum wage and maximum hours of work laws do not apply to such workers. Nor are they entitled to the vacation or overtime pay that regular employees must receive by law. Unionization is near impossible.

… [T]he exacerbation of poverty within Canada is the result of deliberate actions that can be rectified. Just enforcing employment standards laws would help. Strengthening them by, for instance, making it easier for those in non-standard jobs to unionize would bring up wages.

Stricter government regulation could eliminate the wink-and-nudge practices that typify corporate executive compensation schemes — schemes that provide lots of lolly to the kleptocrats at the top while leaving employees at the bottom vulnerable to the grim world of non-standard work.

Why are there so many poor people in such a rich country? Because we allow it. We do not have to.

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