Imagine a field dominated by women, low pay, inconsistent scheduling and little to no job security. One where the majority of workers are over 25 and need to have a broad skillset to work with a public that is demanding and routinely verbally (sometimes even physically) abusive. Now imagine that this field is the largest industrial sector in your country, employing (usually underemploying) approximately two-million Canadians every year.
The imaginary picture you have constructed in your mind is the reality for retail workers in Canada. The emergence of retail as the fastest growing employment sector in Canada and increasing levels of precarity for Canadian workers are two trends that are inextricably linked. In a society driven by consumerism, discussions about the act of consuming revolve around the product and brand, often leaving out individual retail workers who facilitate our transactions. In return for us having the ability to access retail on a larger scale and at a feverish pace, employees are rewarded with low pay, underemployment and little job security.
Dr. Kendra Coulter, an Associate Professor in the Centre for Labour Studies at Brock University, humanizes the retail workforce in her book, Revolutionizing Retail, by using personal stories from retail workers to bring attention to the systemic challenges they face. Inspired by her notion that, “…retail workers’ voices are essential to understanding the realities of retail work, including its challenges and possibilities, and the potential for transforming the sector,” it is important that we frame our discussions about precarity in retail using personal stories.
OSSTF/FEESO member John (not his real name) spent six years working for a multinational electronics retailer. He doesn’t want to be identified because he thinks of his years in retail as an experience bordering on humiliation. “I really wanted to work there because it was a hobby, and I thought something I was interested in would be easy to sell.” John’s enthusiasm for the brand wore off quickly when he realized that his employment was insecure and his contributions were undervalued. “We had shifts that were called ‘on-call,’ meaning that they weren’t guaranteed. A few hours before you had an on-call shift, you had to call in to confirm whether you were needed or not. You had to give up other plans, even though you weren’t guaranteed a shift. I had tuition to pay and no guarantee of hours, and I couldn’t even keep myself available for a second job.” John’s experience is far from unique. According to Statistics Canada, as of 2012, 48 per cent of all front line retail workers were classified as part time, with at least one in four of those individuals classified as ‘involuntary part time,’ meaning that if full-time work were available they would opt for it.
Even if an employee is able to secure full-time hours, one of the hardest challenges of trying to survive as a retail worker is attempting to pay your bills while earning minimum wage. Dr. Coulter’s research uncovers that in Canada, the median wage for retail salespeople is $11.50 an hour. For much of my own 10 years of retail work, I was part of the half of workers that made less than $11.50 an hour. Being a woman also put me at a significant disadvantage. Dr. Coulter’s work shows that although we make up 69 per cent of the retail workforce in Ontario, women still make only 77 cents for every dollar our male counterparts earn.
After two years working at a popular record store, I worked up the courage to ask for a raise and will never forget the response from my manager. She advised me that the best way to get a raise would be to find an employer that offered them. The message was clear: I was disposable, and the goal of the organization was to pay me as little as possible.
Precarious employment for retail workers is our current reality, not our determined fate. Since retail is the largest employment sector in Canada, it should be the one we work hardest to make more stable. We can look to positive examples such as Sweden, a country that has one of the lowest rates of income inequality, for a path towards better employment conditions. According to the European Trade Union Institute, approximately 70 per cent of Sweden’s workforce is unionized, and multinational corporations that hope to enter the Scandinavian market learn quickly that unions and the collective bargaining process are not to be toyed with. In 1995, Toys “R” Us entered Sweden with the same anti-union attitude that characterized its relationship with its workers in the 900 stores it owned and operated internationally. When it refused to sign a collective agreement with its new workforce of 150 employees, a strike was called. In a remarkable display of solidarity, unionized truck drivers refused to deliver to their stores, garbage collectors refused to pick up their waste and newspapers refused to run their advertisements. The message was clear—undermining one group of workers in Sweden would not be tolerated by any group of workers. Toys “R” Us gave in and signed what Swedes refer to as a standard collective agreement with its workers, setting minimum standards for wages, vacation time and other working conditions.
We don’t have to travel as far as Sweden to find the solution to precarity in the retail trade in Canada. In 2015, Unifor Local 414 successfully negotiated a collective agreement with Metro that guaranteed a minimum number of hours for part-time workers, more notice on scheduling, higher-base wages for new employees as well as a faster rate of pay increases. Four thousand grocery store employees were able to collectively chip away at the negative characteristics of retail work that were undermining their ability to have stable lives. That is inspiring.
Understanding the prevalence of precarity in the retail sector is the first step in confronting the problem. As OSSTF/FEESO members we must act as allies by rewarding retailers that have unionized workforces with our patronage, and by engaging friends and family in conversations about the benefits of union membership. My hope is that in a few years I will be able to revisit the topic of the retail workforce, but with the ability to report that it is experiencing the highest rate of unionization of any sector.