As the provincial unemployment rate continues to rise, unions are speaking out about the declining opportunities for quality work available to people.
In July, B.C.'s unemployment rate increased to 6.7 per cent, which is about a half per cent
climb from 6.3 per cent in June, according to WorkB.C.'s labour market snapshot.
This increase reflects - not only that a large percentage of the population is without work - a lack of good, long-term jobs for people, said Andy Neufeld, communications director for the Union of Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1518.
"There's not only an unemployment problem, there's an underemployment problem, and it has to do with the quality of jobs that are available for people," he said.
This is especially true for jobs in the retail grocery industry - the economic sector in which most of the UFCW's members work, Neufeld added.
"Like many other sectors of the economy, the union rates have dropped dramatically. Where it used to be 80 per cent plus of the retail food industry was organized ... it's now down to just under 50," he said.
This drop in union numbers comes from an increase in big-name American companies - like Wal-Mart and Target - setting up shop in Canada. Until recently, Local 1518 represented workers at Burnaby's Zellers.
But when Target bought the store, instead of offering the current - and in many cases, longterm - Zellers' employees comparable, unionized jobs, Target decided employees would have to re-apply for the same positions and start at the bottom of the pay grade. The union fought hard against this decision, taking the issue to the B.C. Labour Relations Board.
"We believed there was a good argument there that, regardless of what company had their name on the door, those workers had a collective agreement - they had a contract they were working under - and that Target, as a successor employer was obliged to honour that," Neufeld said.
But in the end, the tribunal ruled against the UFCW, which, in turn, lost dozens of well-paying jobs with benefits and contributed to the increase in B.C.'s unemployment rate.
This is all part of the trend towards low-paying, low-quality, non-unionized jobs, added
Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.
"We have hundreds and thousands of jobs that don't make the bar," he said.
It's reasonable for people to expect to work a decent job with good pay and benefits, but these opportunities have steadily declined since 2001 when the provincial government made changes to B.C.'s labour laws and employment standards, Sinclair added.
But it's not all doom and gloom. The federation has made some strides towards improving the quality of jobs available, including successfully campaigning for a higher minimum wage from $8/hour to $10.25/hour.
"And so we're going to continue, and right now we're trying to raise it to $12 an hour," he said.
Other important steps towards lowering - and eventually ending - unemployment in B.C. include making changes to the Temporary Foreign workers program, a program Sinclair said is fundamentally flawed.
"It was originally set up for shortage of skilled trade (labour)," he said. "Now it's become, not the last option but the first choice. You know, we have a million people unemployed in Canada, we have 160,000 unemployed in British Columbia. There's no reason that Tim Hortons or McDonalds or anybody else should be using temporary foreign workers."
Sinclair said there's no labour shortage but the government and employers are using temporary workers instead of employing people from B.C. But both Sinclair and Neufeld agree that a solution to unemployment will only come when the government, industries and unions work together.
The model is there, it's just a matter of implementing it, Sinclair added.
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