Targeting change: Retail and Canada's future

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The Canadian retail scene became a little more crowded last week when U.S.-based Target began opening stores. These openings are the latest chapter in a longer, tumultuous story.

Familiar to some due to cross-border shopping, Target appeared on many Canadians' radar screens last year with the announcement that the corporation would be acquiring over 200 Zellers locations. But even more significant for many Canadians was the news that thousands of Zellers workers would be losing their jobs as a result.

 The recession seemed endless. Youth unemployment was soaring. Right-wing governments' claims that tax cuts for corporations would lead to jobs were proving to be sheer fallacy. Then we learned that a U.S. company which needs retail workers was refusing to respect experienced Canadian retail workers. And to top it all off, Zellers' parent company HBC tried to prevent workers from speaking out about their job losses.

Nevertheless, some Canadians courageously advocated for themselves and their co-workers, and after months of workers' organizing with the support of UFCW Canada, Target agreed to give Zellers workers interviews. Not full-time jobs, not even part-time jobs -- only interviews.

Not surprisingly, the Harper government did nothing for these Canadians. In Europe and around the world, it is common for governments to defend citizens when foreign companies arrive. For example, before the South African government would allow Walmart to move in, the company had to agree to minimize layoffs, respect existing retail collective agreements and use local suppliers. Nothing of the sort happened here.

 Likely aware of Canadians' skepticism about another largely unfettered U.S. retail corporation, and of the stain dirtying its labour relations image even before a single store had been opened here, Target initiated months of intense marketing. Undoubtedly spending an exorbitant amount of money on advertising, the corporation has desperately tried to make good in the eyes of Canadians. Yet last week, Target stumbled nervously onto the stage like a washed up boy band bracing for jeers and empty seats. Target spokespeople would not say how many Zellers workers were re-hired, or even how many full-time positions there are for Canadians, period.

 Soon, interest in Target will subside, but the more substantial retail issues will remain. The fact is that Canadians are more likely to work in retail than any other sector. And about two thirds of all retail workers are women. But Target, Walmart, and many other large retailers do not pay living wages. These companies offer work that is not only characterized by low wages, but by part-time hours, insecurity, and little sense of fulfillment.

Target profited $3 billion in 2012. Its CEO got $19 million. Yet many workers made less than $20 thousand -- that is, poverty wages. This inequality and unfairness harms Canadians, and drags down our entire society. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that poor conditions for workers hurt retailers' bottom lines, as well.

So whether motivated by empathy, a desire to eliminate the gender wage gap, or an interest in economic prosperity, there are many strong and compelling reasons why we need to revolutionize retail. Canadians can choose to boycott specific stores, certainly, but that is not enough. Social and political solutions are needed.

Unionization plays a role in raising retail standards, and workers of all ages are choosing unions as a way to tangibly improve their conditions and gain greater respect. Public policy should also be strengthened and expanded to ensure all workers in retail and beyond have a decent standard of living. Countries like Sweden stand out not only because retail workers get overtime pay for evening and weekend work and their schedules one year in advance, but because all workers get at least five weeks of paid vacation, access to free post-secondary education, and universal child care. These rights are the direct result of a strong labour movement, progressive taxation and governments, and a commitment to social solidarity.

Is it time for a retail workers' bill of rights here, as a start? Paid sick days, a few weeks advanced notice in scheduling, and the freedom to organize without reprisal are the least the nearly three million Canadians working in retail deserve. I think workers deserve much more.


Kendra Coulter is a professor in the Centre for Labour Studies at Brock University who researches retail work, workers, and political action. Her web site is; @DrKendraCoulter on Twitter.   


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