Views / Opinion

The modern workforce is passing through the eye of the storm: Mallick

Not so long ago, weather systems and worker's rights felt like relatively stable concepts in our day-to-day lives. Now, it feels like new catastrophes are bearing down on us daily.

A vehicle is inundated by storm surge flood waters from Hurricane Irma along the St. Johns River on Sept. 11, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

A vehicle is inundated by storm surge flood waters from Hurricane Irma along the St. Johns River on Sept. 11, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Two prevoiously-stable facts of life are changing fast and hitting us hard: our climate, and our jobs.

There was a time, not so many decades ago, when we didn’t think much about weather, or work. They were inevitable. Weather happened. You got a job.

Both alterations were powered by the Industrial Revolution, that massive wave that crashed into the 18th century and shovelled everything before it, making the world faster and then something resembling rubble.

Now it’s joined-up rubble. The catastrophes were personalized, then local, national and now global.

This is why Star reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh, covering Work and Wealth, has one of the best beats in journalism. Everything in her field touches every single reader in their daily lives. Money and labour are the core.

She and reporter Brendan Kennedy recently wrote a jarring investigative series on the huge growth of temp work in Ontario, where workers are paid minimum or close-to-minimum wages — some are paid in cash — to do sometimes unsafe work.

One young woman, Amina Diaby, had been working at Fiera Foods in North York, Ont., for only two weeks when she was strangled to death on Sept. 2, 2016 after her hijab was pulled into a machine as she worked on the assembly line. No, not an auto assembly line. It was pastries.

Diaby was a refugee, at her first job. To think she came to Canada for this.

The makeshift, anonymous work revealed in the series was a shock to the system. It didn’t even sound like Canada.

There are different aspects to the destruction of work as we know it in North America. The story of new Canadians grabbing any work they can find is just one kind of mutilation of an ideal, that work could be less arduous, better paid and lift all boats, not just the yachts. Ever since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906 about the American meat packing industry, it was thought that even mucky, violent work could be made cleaner and safer.

During her undercover stint at Fiera Foods, the Star's Sara Mojtehedzadeh worked on the croissant production line where Amina Diaby, 23, died after two weeks on the job. Diaby was one of thousands of Ontarians who have turned to temporary employment agencies to find jobs that often come with low pay and little training for sometimes dangerous work.

Sara Mojtehedzadeh/ Torstar

During her undercover stint at Fiera Foods, the Star's Sara Mojtehedzadeh worked on the croissant production line where Amina Diaby, 23, died after two weeks on the job. Diaby was one of thousands of Ontarians who have turned to temporary employment agencies to find jobs that often come with low pay and little training for sometimes dangerous work.

It hasn’t turned out that way. Congratulations to the animal-rights movement, but consider what humans — often easily-exploited immigrants — have had to endure as the line speeds up.

If white collar work seems more pleasant, think of millennials facing serial internships, contract work, the lowering of expectations and fear of a wasted education. Boomers, safe with defined-benefit pensions, are noticing that pensioners’ rights come last as companies skimp and industries die off.

Women, facing a growing backlash against feminism, are shut out of tech jobs, fear taking maternity leave, and lash out at each other instead of patriarchy. Men choose the wrong opponent, blaming women for daring to compete.

There are many causes, including the worship of the God of Cheap, imported goods, status anxiety, technology, social isolation, the valuing of the present over the future, dumbing down, the decline of unions, the strange lure of the hard-right for the poor and uneducated, urbanization, the devaluation of higher education, and longer lives.

Work — and its decreasing rewards — is always interesting. I’d rather read oral histories of people talking about their jobs than read New York Magazine’s very fine Sex Diaries. Shopping is equally interesting. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

The Financial Times, which is purely about money as opposed to work — they should call it Money & How to Make It — has a fascinating section called, with characteristic candour, How To Spend It. Even spending money is a kind of work for the rich.

Those foolish enough to disregard money as a factor have no idea what is shifting beneath their feet.

I see Mojtehedzadeh’s work as “double digging,” a gardening term for loosening two layers of soil and adding organic matter. It’s hard work digging this deep, repeatedly, and then reassembling it. Most gardeners avoid it. It’s only done when garden beds are in a state of emergency.

Modern work is like this now. It needs aeration and examination.

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