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It’s not a labour shortage, it’s a good employer shortage!

And in Alberta, there’s a good provincial government shortage too!

By now you’ve probably heard the chorus of whiny employer groups bemoaning what they say is a labour shortage. It’s not true. It’s bologna. There is no labour shortage. What there is a shortage of is good employers who will listen to employees and offer good wages, good working conditions and good jobs with dignity.

You’ve probably also heard about the “great resignation” and the wave of labour unrest in America that led to #Striketober which is quickly becoming #Strikemas. All of these things are related.

What the pandemic has shown us is that workers are the economy and that low-wage workers need better pay and benefits. It is wrong that someone working full-time does not make enough money to pay for food and rent, while at the same time, the company makes record profits and the owners and CEOs bring in billions. A reaction to this injustice is what we are seeing both in the United States and Canada. Workers are realizing that they don’t have to settle for precarious work for exploitative employers and they are exercising their collective union power to demand more and making different job choices.

Where the labour shortage argument is coming from

The labour shortage argument is coming from the restaurant industry, meat packing, hospitality and others who choose to exploit workers. These are industries with employers who profit by not paying employees a living wage because they get tips, because they are vulnerable, because they can get away with it. They don’t care about their workers and they don’t listen to them.

The lobby group for the restaurant industry says employers are having difficulties finding chefs, cooks and dishwashers. The problem, they say, is “due to declining birth rates, an aging population, and two generations of young people, millennials and Gen Zs, who don’t behave like their predecessors in the workforce.”

The Business Development Bank of Canada surveyed more than a thousand “entrepreneurs” in Canada and 64 per cent reported that labour woes were stifling growth.

Canada’s meat packers say they are short 4,000 butchers countrywide.

Alberta’s ski hill and hotel employers say they’re having difficulty hiring, blaming the loss of foreign workers due to international travel restrictions and “too generous” pandemic benefits.

Even the oil and gas industry says they’re short tens of thousands of workers.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business wants the federal government to loosen the rules of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) for “low and unskilled workers” as a “long-term solution to labour shortages.”

These employers don’t listen to workers. If they did, they’d hear that frontline workers in the food service industry face abuse and harassment, on a daily basis, in addition to low pay. And so, many of these workers used the pandemic to retrain and find better jobs, ones that pay better and are safer.

If employers listened, they’d hear that workers in meat packing plants – mostly new Canadians – were literally scared for their lives through the COVID-19 pandemic. These jobs were already “3D” jobs - dirty, dangerous and difficult, but when you add a dangerous virus and a provincial government that mishandled the pandemic response, well, no wonder workers are not super excited to return to the killing floor.

If oil and gas employers listened, they’d hear that workers are willing to earn less to have a stable work-life balance and be able to come home to their families at night, rather than risk their life getting COVID-19 in an oil sands work camp.

Hundreds of thousands of Albertans are looking for work

There is no labour shortage in Alberta. There were 186,000 Albertans looking for work in October, or a 7.6 per cent unemployment rate.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the labour market, especially for workers at the lower end of the wage spectrum. Those workers had the largest drop in working hours. But low-wage employers expect these workers to dutifully bounce back to work. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business blamed the $500/week Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) for their members not having a surplus reserve of low-cost workers.

What we saw with the $500/week Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) was that these low-wage workers experienced a stability that some may have never had before. And realizing the injustice of these companies profiting by paying them less than what they need for the basics, profiting from their labour, workers are making other choices.

Kenney and the UCP’s low wage agenda

The UCP government led by Jason Kenney has not helped the situation. The current government has engaged what can only be called a low-wage agenda on our province’s lowest paid workers, the workers in food services, accommodation and tourism – the sectors of the economy where employers whine the loudest about not being able to hire.

The minimum wage has remained frozen at $15 an hour since the 2019 provincial election even as inflation marches on. Even worse, the government reduced the minimum wage for students under 18 to $13 an hour. They dropped the minimum wage, they said, in order to increase employment.

Think about that. The UCP government, led by Jason Kenney, actually said that lower wages for the lowest paid workers will increase employment. These lower wages really only benefit the exploitative employers who lobby the UCP government so they can profit off the backs of workers.

But, wait! There’s more!

The Kenney government commissioned a panel to review the minimum wage for food and beverage servers who earn tips. The panel, stacked heavily with restaurant owners, has a pre-determined outcome: to recommend that these workers should have their pay cut. The UCP government blatantly states that the goal of the review is to “assessed whether hospitality industry workers would generate a higher net income (i.e. by working more hours) with a wage differential similar to those that exist in other provinces.” (See page 18 of the Labour Annual Report)

The UCP government has been sitting on the report since last spring, likely because employers now realize that cutting wages won’t entice workers back to jobs where the wages were already as low as they can be (legally).

It’s not only the Kenney government’s minimum-wage policy that’s keeping workers away from jobs. The UCP government under Jason Kenney is also a horrible employer and has:

What can be done?

What can be done? The UCP government needs to start listening to workers and stop listening to exploitative employers.

Better pay would help entice workers back to jobs. Wages have been stagnant in Alberta for the last decade.

One study showed that the industries with the highest job vacancy rates also have the lowest pay.

Even Jason Kenney knows enough about economics that if you want to attract workers, you can start by increasing pay. At least in 2014, Jason Kenney knew this. When he was forced to reform the Temporary Foreign Worker Program he said,

“There should be a market response to the scarcity of a commodity like labour, and that market response, first and foremost, is higher wages. We don’t see that in Alberta…”

But it’s not all about wages.

If the UCP listened to workers, they would bring in paid sick days immediately so that workers have a safety net should they become injured or sick because of work.

If they listened to workers, they’d hear that workers with children need adequate and affordable child care to help them re-enter the labour market. They’d also hear that the gender wage gap (men earning more than women) is a real thing that needs to be addressed by government.

If the Kenney government listened to workers, they’d hear that dignity and work-life balance are also very important to workers.

What happens if the Kenney government doesn’t listen to workers? Well, we can look to our neighbours to the south to see what might happen.

The U.S. labour market has been hit by a wave of strikes and labour unrest. Many American workers are fed up with the race to the bottom. They are organizing and walking off the job. As one author observed, “ What’s really going on is more accurately described as a living-wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a healthcare shortage.”

Mass strikes could happen here in Alberta. In October last year, hospital workers in Edmonton walked off the job because of this government’s belligerence.

Alberta workers are flexing their muscles in the labour market.

Cargill workers represented by UFCW Local 401, fought for and won major concessions from their employer, including a $1,000 signing bonus, a $1,000 COVID-19 bonus, retroactive pay, and pay increases worth about 21 per cent over the six year contract.

Government of Alberta workers represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) ratified a new collective agreement with job security until December 2022 and pay raises through 2023, which is a remarkable turnaround for the UCP government after it said their wages should be cut by 3 per cent.

North American workers are waking up to their power and have lost their patience with billionaire exploitative employers and their unjust ways. Alberta employers and the Kenney UCP government would be wise to listen.