In late 2011, the Occupy movement — directed against economic and social inequality — saw hundreds of protesters setting up tents in major Canadian cities including Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax. DawneBringeland has friends and acquaintances who participated in the protest in Vancouver.
“They’re in the age (range) of 30 to 60 and they began to look at their situation in life and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m working 50 to 60 hours a week and I’m getting paid for 35 to 40. Why?’” said Bringeland, a Vancouver-based faculty member in the School of Business at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT).
Despite the widespread media attention and worldwide demonstrations, few people think the Occupy movement will have a significant impact on the Canadian workplace, according to the latest Pulse Survey. Only 12.2 per cent of respondents think the impact will be significant, found the survey of 589 Canadian HR Reporter readers and members of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA).
“It won’t be immediate but in the longer term there will be labour unrest — it will be kind of a slow brew,” said Bringeland. “As people begin to appreciate the growing income gap, people will begin to understand their efforts in the workplace are going for the benefit of a small group of people… and they will reflect on: ‘What’s in it for me? Why should I work so hard? What’s the equity in this relationship?’”
However, 42.3 per cent of survey respondents think the movement may have an impact, but not a significant one, and 45.5 per cent think it will not have any impact.
“For any change to happen, the movement needs to develop a clear message and be well- organized, and it’s not clear to me what they want to change,” said Bruce Wilson, vice-president of HR and communications at 350-employee Surrey Place Centre in Toronto. “To me, now any movement that happens seems to be called an ‘occupy’ movement, which further confuses what the movement is all about.”
One-fifth (20.9 per cent) of survey respondents said they fully understand the objectives of the Occupy movement, while 54 per cent somewhat understand them and 25 per cent do not understand the objectives at all.
“To me, the movement wanted to bring about change to corporate ethics, transparency, executive pay and the need to address the imbalance between the rich and the poor, both societal and economic,” said Wilson.
One of the biggest issues brought about by the protest that many people can relate to is the perceived corporate greed and executive pay, he said.
“As most workers across Canada are taking pay freezes or decreases or even losing their jobs, stats show that top Canadian executives are continuing to receive pretty huge compensation packages as well as even abnormal year-over-year increases,” said Wilson. “Some corporations are making huge profits in a time where most workers are being told to tighten their belts.”
Wilson cited a recent Globe and Mail article — based on a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — that said Canada’s 100 highest paid CEOs would make one worker’s average yearly salary before noon on the first working day of the year. It’s information like this that fuels the Occupy movement, he said.
It also gives more power to unions, said Bringeland.
“In tough economic times, when this situation is present and people are aware of the significant salaries that top CEOs are making, it is going to be an opportunity for unions to put pressure on our labour situation,” she said. “When a company says there’s no money and someone’s taking home $10 million, $1 million in a year goes to a lot of salaries at $30,000 a year.”
More than one-third (38.7 per cent) of survey respondents are at least somewhat sympathetic with the objectives of the Occupy movement, while 39.9 per cent are somewhat or completely unsympathetic, found the Pulse Survey.
“It takes a lot for people to speak up and just how fast it sprang up across the world, it means that people go through the same thing everywhere and they associate with each other,” said JaninaRuchkovski, HR manager at Telemed Diagnostic Management in Toronto. “They are becoming a global voice and you cannot ignore that.”
One-half (49.6 per cent) of survey respondents said the Occupy movement has generated at least some informal discussion at their organization, while 44.3 per cent said it did not generate any discussion.
Although not a baby boomer herself, Ruchkovski works with a lot of baby boomers and the conversation around the movement was mostly negative, she said.
“Boomers have different perspectives on how you achieve things in life and they commented on how you have to take life in your own hands and if you want to do something you have to do it yourself,” said Ruchkovski. “So they don’t like the younger generation expecting to have things handed to them.”
At BCIT, Bringeland generated discussion around the movement in the classroom with her students. She asked them to look at it from a business point of view and consider ethics, equity and how it may impact them as future employees, she said.
“Initially, it was a real mixed bag. Some students had already bought into the Occupy movement and other students knew very little… but once we started to discuss it and peel back the layers and they began to understand this is about them graduating from college or university and going into the workplace — do they want to work for companies who behave this way? It did get them thinking.”
The Occupy movement should make employers realize people want to work for organizations that are more equitable and “share in the winnings,” said Bringeland.
“It’s time for industry to look at how they’re behaving and really think of the implications long term,” she said. “What are we doing to ourselves? Is this really creating opportunities or are we eventually limiting our opportunities for sustainability?”
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