title>New Catholic Bishops' Report: Workers In Canada Are In Crisis

New Catholic Bishops' Report:
Workers In Canada Are In Crisis

Janet Somervill

The Canadian Bishops' Social Affairs Commission has found its voice again in a sharp criticism of major trends in the Canadian economy. At a press conference in Ottawa on the last day of February, two Social Affairs bishops unveiled a Commission-sponsored study of work and unemployment in today's Canada. Their bottom-line message was: working life is in crisis in this country, and it's getting worse.

Archbishop Marcel Gervais of Ottawa told the press conference that Canada is moving from “a society largely based on full-time, permanent employment to one that is increasingly oriented towards part-time, insecure forms of employment.” This shift, he said, “is creating a more deeply fragmented society, polarized between rich and poor, urban and rural, women and men, older and younger workers, white and non-white ... We are becoming a society divided against ourselves.” ...

For the past two years a “pastoral consultation” with workers has been afoot. Its formal name is the Work and Solidarity Project, and these two years have been Phase One. ...

The grass roots input gives the episcopal voice a different sound this time around: more locally accented, angrier, and more concrete. Another difference: this consultation is bluntly critical of the Church itself. “The Church has failed woefully ... in addressing the concerns of labour in society,” said the report from the Atlantic region. “Generally speaking, the diocesan Church has absolutely no credibility in this area,” said the report from Quebec - which also added that the Church has a very poor record as an employer. “Church jobs equal insecure jobs,” it summed up. “Tell the bishops that if they listen to us, we'll listen to them,” the Ontario report quotes one participant.

The bleak report from the Western Region (which in CCCB terms includes the entire Canadian North) is more polite about the church, but unremitting in its alarm about what is happening to workers. Native communities there report 75 to 80 per cent unemployment rates. The Inuit “have no future in the future of work as planned by Canadian society.” Farm foreclosures and abandonment of rural community services in Saskatchewan cause “a growing sense of despair”. Racial tensions grow in B.C. as people compete for jobs. Mining and forestry, both West and East, use new technology that eliminates many jobs while increasing threats to the environment. ...

In the Atlantic Region, decline in the fishery is producing a despair as keen as the shrinking market and grain prices for the farmers of Saskatchewan. In addition, Atlantic Canada is particularly government-dependent: “At least 25 per cent of the jobs are in government, and 80 per cent of the gross domestic produce in the region comes from government spending.”

“No one is secure any more. Everyone's income is dropping. Job security is a thing of the past. Ordinary people are experiencing a deepening crisis in their everyday lives: primary producers are going under, public sector workers are suffering cutbacks and wage cuts: the poor, the unemployed, women, youth and visible minorities are not having basic needs met,” mourned the Atlantic Region Report. ...

The Ontario section of the report reflects on some of the causes of the crisis of work. “The reality of work has been dramatically affected by the power of the multinational corporations to plan production on a global basis,” this section begins. “Because our economy is so export-oriented, and because we have accepted the model of 'being competitive on the world scene,' there is great pressure to reduce costs of production or of services. National priorities and needs are irrelevant in such a world,” said the Ontario writer.

Steelworkers in Hamilton, fruit-growers in the Niagara Peninsula and farmers in several sectors see their futures and numbers shrinking. Auto workers and others in the manufacturing sector live in fear that, with Free Trade, plants will be shut down and moved to the U.S.A. or to Mexico.

Some people in Ontario make a lot of money, and the report worried about the growing gap between social classes here. “Those who are well off,” it observed, “are often more than just blind to the needs of the working poor and those of modest income. In some instances, neighbourhoods organize to block affordable housing in order to maintain property values. This reveals a deepening fear of the poor and a wish to ghetto-ize the disadvantaged.”

The Quebec section of the report was also sharply analytical. Job insecurity in Quebec has been on the rise since the early 1980's, it notes. “Job insecurity of this kind is the result of social choices about which we are no longer or never were consulted. Firms aiming at international markets where the competition is fierce, do not hesitate to sacrifice job quality and quality of life on the altar of competitiveness ... Our work is losing its value. We can be replaced by anyone and the pressure is increased by the high unemployment rate ...”

All four sections of the “Crisis of Work” report worry about the plight of women workers. Burdened with a double working role, they are still caught in low-wage, part-time, insecure and unsatisfying jobs. Most regions report that married women now work out of economic necessity. Some women face impossible odds. At Alberta's minimum wage, for example, a single mother with two children would have to work 91 hours a week to get to the poverty level of income.

All reporters noted that contemporary patterns of work are extremely hard on family and on local community. There is too much stress and burnout, too mush mandatory mobility, and too much insecurity - not only for the individual worker, but for whole villages and towns.

Participants in this project have compiled a bristling list of challenges to the Church - both to its inclusiveness (“stop being a church for the middle class and find out how to open up to the poor!”) to its leadership role (“empower people to challenge government policies and corporate priorities!”) and to its teaching patterns (“the social doctrine of the church must be taught to the clergy, and must become part of preaching and of liturgy.”)

There will be a Phase Two of “Work and Solidarity”: it will focus on the meaning of work, says an “executive summary” sent out with the regional reports. Phase Three will look at the future of work.

Excerpted from Catholic New Times, March 17, 1991, Vol. 15, No. 6



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