Like many other workers in the United States during their long recovery from the Great Recession, incomes for employees in fields such as retail and food services have lost ground against a relentless rise in the cost of living.
A feature published Thursday in The New York Times suggests real incomes for U.S. sales clerks, cashiers, waiters, cooks – even home health aides — have fallen in recent years.
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Sorry Walmart Canada workers, no raises for you
Those fields also happen to be among the biggest employers in Canada, according to Statistics Canada, and are the most accessible for workers to land a job.
It begs the question – have real incomes been eroded for the millions of Canadians in those occupations as well?
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The short answer is no, at least in the case of retail and food services workers. In fact, wages for workers in those fields have outperformed inflation-adjusted average wage growth in the broader economy for the past decade, according to labour union economist Jim Stanford.
“Real hourly wages in retail have grown in Canada since minimum wages began to be significantly hiked in the mid-2000s,” Stanford said in an email.
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But Stanford, who is the chief economist for the country’s biggest private-sector labour union in Unifor, added: “That doesn’t mean their real incomes have grown, however.”
In response to provinces raising minimum wages, employers have resorted to limiting hours for staff in a juggling act designed to save them labour costs. It’s pressured real income gains for those workers in the process and created unstable working schedules – what economists are now calling “precarious” employment.
The “real problem in this line of work is precarious employment: part-time work, where you can’t get enough hours to get by,” Stanford said. “And in fact, [you] don’t even know your hours, in most cases, until just a few days before.”
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It’s a problem for workers both in Canada and the United States. But pressured by labour advocates and unions – and in response to an improving labour market in the U.S. — some companies are changing their policies.
The Canadian arm of Gap Inc. said last week it was joining its U.S. counterpart in ending the practice of keeping workers on call for short-notice shifts. Gap spokeswoman Laura Wilkinson said the changes apply to all four of the brands operated by the company in Canada – the Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy and Intermix.
Unifor’s Stanford said a new collective agreement with supermarket chain Metro Inc., has yielded similar results.
“On top of some good wage increases, we made some breakthroughs in new practices around scheduling reliability, notice, and a commitment to make more full-time jobs,” he said.
“Addressing these issues, as well as lifting hourly wages, will be crucial to improving the lives of these workers.”
— with a file from The Canadian Press