Is this Progress?

Is this Progress?
Every once in a while I come across a book that changes my understanding of the world. Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World, which describes Magellan’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe, has had this effect on me. It is a truly harrowing tale of determination, discovery, and human strengths and weaknesses across different cultures. It made me step back and look at trade as a human endeavour.

Global trade has been around for hundreds of years. People like to trade. We like to discover new things and to get more out of the process than a simple exchange of goods. Some people use trade as a way to seek out new opportunities to improve their personal finances and others use it as a way to change their standing in society. The activity of trading is part of the human character and it is also linked to the political powers of the day for their own self-interest. Trade is not just an expression of human activity, but can also be an expression of human creativity.

Another book that has influenced my thinking is Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress. Wright challenges the modern myth that progress always moves in a positive direction. He argues the downfall of civilizations has in a number of cases been due to too much of a good thing. He offers several examples of societies that found an activity that was initially helpful, but then through constant repetition ended up having catastrophic consequences.

One could argue the same thing about individuals; we all seem to be our own worst enemy. Wright describes the poignant example of the inhabitants of Easter Island who used trees to move massive rock formations they carved and strategically placed to appease the gods. They cut down so many trees the soil was eroded and they could no longer grow crops to feed themselves. By the time Western explorers arrived at Easter Island in the 18th century, the population had decreased from 10,000 at its height to a meagre 1,000 or so people in generally poor health.

Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance engrained in me the understanding that those at the bottom of the economic ladder are hit hardest. There is so little room for the poor to manoeuvre. Government policies stack the deck and it is wilful blindness to argue otherwise.

When I reflect on economic and trade practices today and where we are in terms of the progress of human rights, it is clear to me that past and current practices are plagued by the domination of Northern countries over Southern countries. While recent reports are telling us the physical well being of people around the globe has improved there have also been negative impacts. Progress, while born of ingenuity, has its downsides. These negative impacts are felt most deeply by those who exist at the margins of society, those who cannot advocate for their own protection.

Canada may have an Economic Action Plan, but does this plan do anything really different from what has been done before, except reduce or eliminate the protections for vulnerable populations that formed part of the various governmental policies that the government is “fixing?” Is there really any evidence that removal of these protections has actually increased the economic security of Canadians?

When we look at programs like the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, it is important to understand these kinds of programs do not suddenly appear. They are the product of a business-as-usual approach that favours corporations over workers. The program was designed to work in tandem with foreign agencies that operate as recruiters of foreign workers. Bilateral agreements have been struck between the government of Canada and foreign governments to facilitate this process, including an agreement by the Canadian government to allow the payment of lower wages to foreign workers as well as poorer working conditions.

While we are only hearing about the RBC/iGate story now, Tim Hortons has been using the TFWP for several years to staff outlets mostly in Western Canada. Filipino working crews are trained offshore and then cycled in and out of the country. As reported by the Alberta Federation of Labour, “between April 25 and December 18, 2012, more than 2,400 Accelerated Labour Market Opinion guest-worker permits — which are supposed to be reserved for highly skilled employment — have been granted to fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, and gas stations.”

Sun Life Canada has also moved some of its operations to India. When I met up with one of my Delhi cousins and asked him what he was doing in Canada a couple of years ago, he said, “I was there to take your jobs.” The stage was set for RBC employee Dave Moreau to lose his job in Toronto to an IT worker from Bangalore years ago, but nobody bothered to warn him.

Although one could argue second-class work in Canada is beneficial for foreign temporary workers because it provides a low barrier to entry opportunities to provide for one’s family, much as it was for the sailors who joined Magellan’s armada, the risks are not advertised. Some foreign workers have made human rights and employment standards complaints in relation to being unjustly dismissed and costs and conditions of lodging.

Neither temporary foreign workers nor Canadians have had the opportunity to contemplate how this adventure will change our lives. Isn’t it worth having a national discussion about progress and what it should look like?

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