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Op-ed: This Labour Day, who do we compare ourselves to?

Austerity is everywhere around us. We are told we have to learn to live with less.

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Halifax Labour Day 2015. Photo Simon de Vet

Cleaners are cut back in the hospitals to save money. While visiting the VG in Halifax I could barely walk up the stairs because of the stench of old food wrappers and hospital dressings in the stairwell – unseen to many as most people take the elevators.  

Spending on three meals a day and snacks for the elderly who live in Nova Scotia nursing homes works out to nearly $5.50 a day.  What can be bought – even in bulk – for $5.50 a day?  Surely not much in the way of fruit, vegetables or a high protein diet. Clearly, as reported by the media,  even butter is a luxury.

What about working people and students, who often have two if not three jobs just to make ends meet.  About a third of women in NS earn $12 or less an hour.  Many have children, and also juggle childcare and its costs.  

Then there is the problem of debt which weighs down our university students.  Many enroll in close to a full course load, and also work one or two jobs.  Something has to give, and usually it’s missing classes and university activities. Students are saddled by growing debt, so they spend as little time at university as they can.  The rare student takes on any cause – political or otherwise – because it detracts from earning enough to avoid more debt.  And when they graduate, the hope is to find a good paying job or two poorly paying ones,  so that they can start to repay their debt – often at the rate of $500 or more a month.

When we compare ourselves to the US, we like to think we still have it good.  After all, minimum wage is higher here than in the US.  Almost everyone in Canada gets two weeks holiday (or 4 percent of earnings tacked on to their wages).  Primary medical care is free for all, even if physiotherapy, dentistry and prescriptions are not.   There is social assistance though at poverty rates – for those who can’t work. And there is employment insurance – payable at a dismal 55 percent of gross pay– for those who have been laid off or are out of work.

But why do we compare ourselves to the have-nots in the US – a country that offers no holidays (unless a union negotiates them), no paid maternity leave, few paid statutory holidays, no serious medical coverage, and rock bottom unemployment benefits?

Better to compare ourselves to the haves in Europe.  Indeed Michael Moore’s new film Where to Invade Next  provides a bracing antidote to what ails us on this side of the pond.  Moore goes to Italy and talks to a policeman and his wife, a fashion salesperson.  They get five weeks’ vacation every year. One works in the public sector and one in the private sector, but both are paid for 13 months a year because, after all, the 13th month pays for their vacations.   

Moore then goes to a clothing factory with dozens of workers at sewing machines and cutting patterns.  Three grown siblings own the factory and said, “We don’t need any more money. We care that our employees smile and are healthy and happy.”  All the employees get a two-hour lunch and go home to eat with their families. We see them clock out and drive out of the plant at noon.  At the Ducati motorcycle plant, a woman worker says she can’t imagine not getting over a year of paid time off to take care of her newborn.

Moore travels to France and walks into a public school in an average neighbourhood at noon.  All the children are at tables eating lunch.  Joining one table, Moore offers the kids a can of Coke, which none of the kids had tried before, and only one girl even wanted to try.  On the menu was a salad appetizer, a fish main course, a cheese course and dessert.  All the students sat quietly, napkin in lap, and talked.  They ate off china plates, drank water from glasses and used metal cutlery.  The school chef is obliged to meet monthly with the town mayor, the parent council and a nutritionist to plan the meals.  The high point was when the chef opened his fridge and showed us more than a dozen types of cheeses served to the students – but their favourite is Brie, he explained.

In Germany Moore visits the Faber-Castell pencil factory, by no means a high tech plant.  When he marvels at the windows in the plant, the manager shrugs and says it improves the health of the workers.  Moore visits the workers’ coffee room and asks if any of them has a second or third job.  Clearly amused, they shake their heads ‘no’  and one says they have a good life and don’t need anything more.  Work ends at 2 pm.  “What do you do then?” Moore prompts. One says he goes to a café to meet his girlfriend, another plays with her children, another takes a walk to enjoy the sunshine.  It is against the law in Germany to phone or email employees out of work hours or on their vacation. If an employee is depressed or dispirited, their doctor can prescribe a 3 -week rest at a spa – all fully paid by the government.

Finally, Moore goes to Slovenia.  A growing number of Americans are attending university there because not only is it 100% free, but the courses are taught in English. He interviews student ‘refugees’ from the US – debt escapees.  Moore also talks to Slovenian students, who last year mounted a huge national protest when the government threatened to take away free university education.  The students won.  

What you realize when you watch this film is that many countries in Europe have it far better than we do – in terms of workers’ pay, conditions, health and safety.  You also see that imbuing students with a less competitive and more caring culture – exemplified by the French lunch, or by young kids who spend fewer than 20 hours a week in Finland’s classrooms– works.  Yet we continue to hitch ourselves to the falling star of the US, its culture of overwork, of punishment and of austerity.

Judy Haiven is a professor in the Management Department of St. Mary’s University and a social activist.

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2 Comments

  1. It does, however, take money — more money — to enable a society to become rich in this way. And that money has to come from somewhere. I know where I think it should come from: where it comes from in those societies. Taxes on wealth and income that make some kind of sense. We do better at this is Canada than some countries I could name, but not very well. Take the money from people who have nothing more to do with it than channel it into offshore tax havens or will it to idle offspring. Sorry, I guess I sound like a socialist.

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