These days, whenever I enter a home I notice things I never did before. What once sat invisibly next to the television sets and computers, has become intimately familiar and immediately recognizable.
You see, for the past three months I worked as a temp agency worker at a Rogers Cable warehouse in Toronto, one of the largest in Canada, with a distribution network throughout Eastern Canada. For eight-to-twelve hours a day my coworkers and I sorted, tested, cleaned, and packaged television/PVR boxes and modems for distribution.
Just like the TV boxes and Internet modems which sustain the communication infrastructure upon which we all rely, those I worked with at the warehouse are part of the largely invisible, proletarian pillars of this celebrated ‘Information Revolution’. Some of my coworkers used to work in decent-paying and protected labour jobs and are now left behind by the waves of deindustrialization.
Many others were new immigrants: engineers and teachers who were now experiencing that celebrated Canadian generosity in the form of systematic deskilling. They were all present at this warehouse, trapped in the precarious world of temp agency employment. Temp agency employment is an arrangement that provides corporations like Rogers with a cheap and ‘flexible’ (read: easily exploitable) workforce, while the agencies who rented out these workers earn handsome margins on every hour that we worked.
At this Rogers warehouse, temp agency workers outnumbered the unionized Roger’s employees at least 6 to 1, a testament of the urgent need for unions to find new ways to organize workers in precarious employment and the necessity of legislations that make such organizing feasible.
Many of my co-workers are what can be considered ‘perma-temps’, folks who have worked through temp agencies for long periods of time, some for as many as ten to fifteen years, often at or near the minimum wage and often without any benefits.
Cockroaches and bugs were our constant companions throughout the day, sharing even the areas where we ate our lunch. Dust and debris filled the air and I witnessed a young co-worker hospitalized from an asthma attack (we heard he was fired a few weeks later).
I never received an official safety training session at the warehouse, and the bottles of chemicals we used to clean cable boxes and modems, perhaps cheaply imported as a way of cost reduction, were labeled in another language, which left us with no idea what these chemicals were. Here are the rungs of the labour market where poor working conditions are the norm rather than the exception, where people accept such horrendous working conditions because all too often, there is simply no other choice.
One of the regular and especially backbreaking tasks at the warehouse was the packaging of PVR boxes. During a single shift we would 'move' thousands of these boxes while mind-numbingly packing cables and pamphlets. Working with the pamphlets was particularly disturbing as we would have to look at the same smiling faces and happy families plastered upon these pamphlets over and over again.
One day during my break, in a series of events that felt like a conspiracy to mock the conditions of those in this warehouse, I came across a company poster next to a work station that extolled the values of the Rogers Corporation. By now most people are accustomed to corporate propaganda, but there was one line on this poster that left me in a state of astonishment, a line often used by the late Ted Rogers at the end of his speeches, it read: “The best is yet to come”. As I returned to my workstation with Pharrel’s “Happy” blasting in the background on the radio, I looked around at my co-workers and was reminded of each of their stories. For these folks, who have been working here for years, often juggling multiple jobs, living paycheque to paycheque, and whose family lives have borne the brunt of precarious employment -- just when, exactly, is the best coming?
Amidst the bleakness of working as a temporary agency worker, I was often asked as a young, English-speaking, university graduate: “Why don’t you just find a better job?” To seek the betterment of one’s situation seems to me, to be the pinnacle of the human condition. Yet how do we reconcile the fact that our personal attempts at betterment leave behind those who possess neither privilege nor opportunity for betterment?
My inability to resolve this question lay at the heart of my experience at Rogers. It was during this time that I became familiar with Worker’s Action Centre, of their fights on behalf of workers, and of their legislative victories, often unsung and unknown to the very workers who benefited from such victories. I decided to join the WAC, testifying before the government on Bill 18 about my experiences.
On that morning, a few hours before my scheduled time to testify, I received a call from the agency informing me that I was no longer needed at the warehouse, the causes of my termination unknown to me to this day. Since then Bill 18 has been passed, providing a more extensive set of protections for workers though it should go without saying much more is needed.
One of the more distressing issues still unaddressed is the fact that agency workers often do the same work as company employees yet often receive substantially less pay. Temp workers lack options for collective bargaining and that is why legislating 'equal pay for equal work' policies is essential.
In the political and economic climate of our time, it is easy to see how those of the 0.01% like Ted Rogers can claim “the best is yet to come”. For the rest of us however, the best will only come, as it always has in history, when we come together as a united front. Only then can we aspire towards a world where “…the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.