By Douglas Whitelaw
At one time, most farms in southern Ontario had a Beatty Brothers windmill, along with their other farm implements. A little later, many homes had a Beatty wringer washing machine. Their water pumps were famous, too. All of this came from my home town, where Beatty Brothers Ltd. was a major employer for nearly 100 years before the family sold to a larger company. Local boys made good and thus changed their community for the better.
Like many businesses during the Great Depression of the 1930s, they were faced with severe challenges. Sales fell as did profits resulting in the question of what to do with their workforce. They did several things which seem remarkable now. They prioritized retaining those supporting families. Today’s laws and employment practices would prevent that but they maximized the number of people kept from poverty. Another thing they did was to use their workforce, at their own expense to build a public swimming pool. Since one brother lived across the street from the new pool, he ran a heating pipe from the boiler used to heat his house so that the pool was heated, too. When it was finished, they gave it to the town. That pool served the town until the end of the twentieth century when a new indoor pool was constructed at government expense.
How things have changed! Increasingly, jobs, when they are to be had are ‘precarious’ – part-time, on contract, minimum wage, no benefits. And these are not just with small employers. Large, very profitable companies have these policies, too. As an example, my daughter worked for a major Canadian retailer (with 2015 corporate net income of nearly three quarters of a billion dollars) but could never get more than 22 hours per week and if it was discovered an employee had another job elsewhere, they were forced to choose between the two. Consequently, the Ontario government currently has a two prong review underway, focusing on the Employee Standards Act, 2000 and the Labour Relations Act, 1995 in order to better protect workers as the economy evolves. Specifically, the review is “to recommend changes that will improve security and opportunity for those made vulnerable by the structural economic pressures and changes being experienced by Ontarians.”[i] Its about time.
In London, the discussion has started about a ‘living wage’ ($15.53/hour) Senior levels of government have recently agreed to improve the Canada Pension Plan in order to provide a third (rather than a quarter) of pre-retirement income. There is even provision in the recent Ontario budget to run a pilot project for a guaranteed annual income, with the suggestion that London would be a good place to study it.[ii] Evidently, there is growing appreciation that our present system is often a disincentive to find work, that we need not passively accept precarious employment or that people, many of whom cannot sufficiently care for themselves need not be condemned to grinding poverty.
When employers are local they often do exhibit care for their employees, like the retired businessman who told me that during the last couple of years he owned his business, his accountant told him he was losing money. His response: ‘I don’t care!’ Obviously, that cannot be a permanent characteristic of any business. But a lot of that loss was on paper, and as he said, he had made a good living and was supporting several families. It was not simply about what he could take for himself. But when it comes to jobs and what they mean, this perspective is rare. The president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce is Perrin Beatty. Yes, a descendant of those Beatty brothers (his mother was a London Perrin). He is on record opposing measures such as raises to the minimum wage and the improved pension plan, calling it a tax.[iii] Let’s be clear. It is not a tax. It is a form of employee compensation attempting to pre-emptively address seniors’ poverty. Is that not the kind of forward thinking the business community wants from government? We could note that as a former long term MP, cabinet minister and president of the CBC, Mr. Beatty is not lacking in his pensions, all of which do come from our taxes.
Poverty has hidden costs which we all pay. It is not acceptable for businesses to create jobs that are only viable on the backs of vulnerable people trying to care for their families and then off-load that care to private charity (such as food banks), while preaching government austerity. That is not what Canada need become. Businesses such as Libro Credit Union which has committed to pay employees at least the ‘living wage’ are to be applauded.[iv] Perhaps Mr. Beatty, and others like him should recall his own family story, when a job really was good social policy.
Douglas Whitelaw is Executive Director of Ark Aid Street Mission, which provides free evening meals and other services to those experiencing homelessness or living on income supports.