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Unemployment isn’t working for public health, Part 1

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
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on Wednesday, 17 October 2012
in CHNET-Works!

On January 1 of this year, workers at the Electro-Motive Diesel locomotive plant in London, Ontario were locked out of their jobs after refusing to take a 50 percent pay cut. In February, the parent company (Caterpillar Inc.) closed the plant and moved production to Indiana. Now, a story in The Globe and Mail reports that just 68 of the 485 union workers who lost their jobs have found new full-time work. Marriages are crumbling; food bank use is climbing; and the plant stands vacant. (Readers may want to access both this and an earlier, equally important story – also by reporter Tavia Grant, whose coverage has been stellar – before the Globe's content moves behind a paywall.) The situation of former Electro-Motive workers is part of a larger picture of deindustrialization: citywide, one in 15 Londoners – an estimated 24,000 people - live in a household receiving Ontario Works ('welfare'). This means, by definition, an income well below Statistics Canada's Low Income Cutoff.

electro-motive-london-1The vacant plant in London, Ontario previously occupied by
Electro-Motive Diesel

Many health researchers and practitioners in Canada have been slow to grasp the health implications of economic restructuring and the changing nature of work. (The authors of the landmark Code Red study in Hamilton, the topic of an earlier posting, are a notable exception.) Elsewhere, understandings are more advanced. One of the nine knowledge networks that supported the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health addressed employment and working conditions; a fine summary of its findings appeared in BMJ in 2010. The International Labour Organization has for years been promoting what it calls a Decent Work Agenda. The agenda does not specifically refer to health but recognizes the importance of employment and working conditions for overall well-being, especially in the context of the post-2008 economic crisis. Until July 2012, the ILO's Global Job Crisis Observatory kept tabs on how the crisis was affecting employment, and is still a valuable source of background.

So long as governments see little alternative to the reorganization of production across national borders in search of lower labour costs and more 'flexible' employment regimes, an increasing proportion of the population – certainly in the high-income world – can anticipate a future of shrinking earnings, precarious employment, and reliance on multiple but often unpredictable income streams. This is not a fact of nature, but rather a consequence of political choices. The Commission on Social Determinants of Health correctly attributed the unequal distribution of opportunities for leading a healthy life to "a toxic combination of poor social policies and programmes, unfair economic arrangements, and bad politics." Nowhere is this clearer than in the decline of employment as a central concern of public policy. It is time for all those concerned with studying and protecting population health to come clean on this point, and to demand that political leaders do the same. Where, for example, are the voices of the province's Medical Officers of Health on this issue?

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