Jobs scarce for laid-off union workers

Union spokesperson foresees permanent underemployment

A recent study of laid-off manufacturing workers in Ontario shows only about one-quarter are now working and most of them are earning significantly less than they once did.

The report, sponsored by the CAW, tracked 260 laid-off members at Kitchener Frame, Chrysler Canada in Brampton and Collins and Aikman in Scarborough. It found almost half of them had bounced from job to job over the past two years. Of the 24 per cent who are working, 70 per cent of them are working in what the CAW calls “survivor” jobs – part-time, temporary or casual work.

“It’s something to put bread on the table now,” says David Robertson, the Canadian Auto Workers director of work organization and training. “They’re running out of EI (employment insurance), they’re desperate and they’ll take anything they can get in the hopes that something more adequate comes along.”

The study found many workers holding three or more jobs, with one in six currently working for more than a single company.

Wages have also taken a tumble. They plunged by more than $10 an hour for 71 per cent of the Chrysler workers and 60 per cent of the Kitchener workers.

“I don’t think people have adjusted to the fact that we are in a prolonged recession on the job front despite all of the talk of an economic recovery,” says Robertson. “People are being left behind.”

More than half of employees reported more personal and family stress, as well as feelings of depression and sleep problems. Less than two-thirds (60 per cent) rated their mental health as excellent or good, which is significantly less than the general population, according to Robertson.

“When you get that layoff notice, it’s not a death sentence, but it comes pretty close to it for some people,” he says. “They go from having a decent income and hopes for the future to nothing.”

He says the most recent recession is more difficult for laid-off workers to rebound from, compared with those in the early 1980s and 1990s.

“In those periods, you had plants laying off as the recession hit, which meant they were capable of expanding in the recovery when it came,” says Robertson. “This time around you have plants that are closing and plants that are gone. Those plants aren’t rehiring.”

He says social supports, such as employment insurance, have also eroded over that time. He says more money needs to be invested in basic skills upgrading.

“You’ve got to build the resources that you can here in the hopes that if there is a recovery, people are better positioned for it,” he says. “Right now, that isn’t happening. You’ve got the risk of a kind of permanent underclass of unemployed workers now.”

The manufacturing sector has lost more than half a million jobs since 2002. Since then, a number of CAW and government sponsored “action centres” have sprung up to help laid-off workers.

While most of the surveyed employees applauded the centres, the CAW says more money must still be invested in education and training. The union solicited the study to determine what types of programs would assist laid-off workers. The results suggest more targeted support is needed to address the multiple obstacles faced by laid-off workers who are older, women, immigrants or lacking literacy skills.

Robertson hopes the study will prompt provincial and federal governments to do more to help unemployed workers by reminding them that the recession is still far from over for many of them.

Next week, we’ll examine a report by Statistics Canada on the likelihood of unionized workers finding another union job post-layoff.

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