One of my 26-year old sons, J., has worked in the restaurant industry since leaving high school.
He gets jobs readily, and receives glowing feedback; he's hard-working, dependable, genial, honest. He takes pride in the success of the enterprise.
He has been:
- hired for a full-time job only to hear after one day to one month that the job is now cut to two or three days per week (happened on five different jobs)
- assessed, without notice, $160 out of his tips for two required deluxe aprons that the place decided all floor staff now had to wear. (Not beer money to him, more like a week's groceries.)
- paid with cheques that bounced, and
- told when reporting for a scheduled shift, "We aren't busy, go home" (with no pay).
The recourse for workers in
these positions is to file a formal complaint with a government agency,
but J. and his colleagues fear reprisal and say blacklisting is prevalent. As Robert Reich wrote in "Why There's No Outcry", "No one has any job security. The last thing they want to do is make a fuss and risk losing the little they have."
He is but one example of precarity, the employment condition for so many workers. Precarity does not cause exploitation, but it makes abuse that much easier for employers who want to treat people that way.
"The politics of precarity", by Nicole Cohen and Greig De Peuter in Briarpatch Magazine describes the rise of this type of work, and the response of Andrew Cash, a Toronto Member of Parliament (NDP, Davenport riding). This is increasingly the world our youth face (despite high levels of education) so I recommend reading the article even if it does not reflect your political stance.
The authors say:
"Commentators use the tag “precariat” to refer to the swelling population
of those in precarious work, which has grown amid changing conditions
of production, deindustrialization, outsourcing, declining unionization,
and a shift from full-time salaried work to flexible arrangements with
While lean businesses feast on a buffet of options
beyond costly full-time employees, the consequence is a deepening
insecurity for everyone else."
Outside the notoriously exploitative restaurant industry, I have witnessed unpaid internships, unpaid overtime, and the practice of the "eternal contract", which allows employers to forgo paying employee benefits—not just among small business, but also in some of the world's largest global corporations.
I am sympathetic to the challenges of running a small business. But there is disciplined management and there's abuse, and I've seen far too much abuse, not only with my son. Youth, immigrants and post-50s are especially vulnerable to unfair practices.
For several months last year, we paid J.'s rent while the dashing celebrity chef who owned his restaurant told viewers of his cooking show how much fun they'd have (for about $175 per person) at his chic, popular restaurant, where his staff are dedicated to your good time.
Meanwhile, a 50-year-old friend wrote that she was recently fired from a factory job for "trying to be Norma Rae". Unions arose for a reason, and though struggling today, were born of people saying, This is not right.
J. left the restaurant world to pursue his career in butchery, partly because he always enjoyed that work, and partly as a reaction to what he experienced. While some of his colleagues embrace precarity as a strategy that permits time for other interests, J. isn't that guy; he longs to build skills within a steady job.
Tenuous employment has increased across sectors and nations; the accompanying erosion of employment standards has politicized my sons and their friends, regardless of party affiliation.
They are not alone; as Ross Douthat, writing about the American situation in "Leaving Work Behind", says, "Both 'rugged-individualist' right-wingers and more communitarian conservatives tend to see work as essential to dignity, mobility and social equality, and see its decline as something to be fiercely resisted."
Precarity removes opportunity, but more importantly, it removes the aspects that Studs Terkel described in his 1974 book, "Working":
“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well
as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather
than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through
Friday sort of dying.”