Monday, January 30, 2012

Canadian Sweat Shops

In a recent newspaper article I noticed a reference to "asian sweatshops" with women sewing garments for very little pay. The author seemed to think that "sweat" is about hot and crowded working conditions, but it is actually about the psychological hold that the employers have over the employees.

Here in Canada the sweatshops we typically read about involve new Canadians working for very little pay on a piece-work basis, and they often have poor English and they may be uncertain about their immigrations status. Because they are unable to easily move within the economy and the community the sweatshop owner can control what they think and what they worry about. So the workers are afraid to leave.

Surprisingly, sweatshop conditions are quite common in the business world. A few years ago I worked in a northern town and I watched the owner of a small hotel sweat his employees. It was amazing. He would fly down to Winnipeg to recruit employees, and he would look for applicants who were physically unattractive, or recently divorced and unhappy about that, or heavily in debt, or who had very low self-esteem. He was looking for folks who were off balance. He hired them, flew them north to his community, and gave them room and board in the staff quarters of his hotel. He worked them long and hard, he didn't pay them very well, he probably over-charged for the board and lodging, and he kept them off balance. Their work was never really good enough. "Was this any way to reward a man who took you in, gave you work, believed in you when no-one else would, tried to help you in a difficult time in your life, and you help me by not finishing the clean up of the dining room?"

My man had a distinct advantage because there was a housing shortage in town, and it was very difficult for one of his employees to leave and find somewhere else to stay. You really had to leave and fly south, or stay under my man's terms. I got to know a woman who had managed to leave the hotel and still stay in town, and she had found a place to stay (on a new friend's sofa) while she found new employment and which led eventually to her own apartment. She said that when she left her boss was nearly apoplectic with rage.

My man's employment tactics were legal, and they were very effective. He kept his labour costs down and could schedule split shifts and long shifts without difficulty.

But the absolute low point came one morning when I was having my breakfast in his coffee shop, and I watched him sweat his wife.

I have since heard that she left him. Not a moment too soon.

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