How would you feel if everyone and their mother had a part in deciding whether you'll be sitting down to dinner with your family or working on Christmas Day, or on any of the other eight major holidays for that matter.
That's what some of Toronto's lowest-paid employees are facing when city council decides this fall, following a round of public consultations by the Economic Development and Culture Division, whether to expand holiday shopping on Easter, New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, etc.
This really isn't about shoppers' right to shop, store-owners' right to open or economic development. It's an erosion of workers' human rights. Retail is not an "essential service," and no one will become ill or die if they can't buy that dress or DVD player on Labour Day or any of the other pause days.
My heart goes out to the one in 10 workers in Toronto employed in this sector. Many have job descriptions that never end, and are often over-worked and spat out by employers, creating some of the high turnover retail is known for. They deserve better.
I know because I was one of them. I started in retail part-time in high school, then moved
to full-time and store management, and now I'm writing a book that includes my work experiences.
There was mass sympathy for the workers at Caterpillar Electro-Motive in London, who were treated so shabbily. But with a union and $34-an-hour wages, these factory workers earned something those labouring in retail can only dream of.
And now they are being besieged by the largest influx of aggressive U.S. firms in the history of Canadian retail. Witness, for example, Target's leasing of Zellers stores, forcing thousands of employees out of jobs and seniority rights to compete with minimum-wage workers. I realize this is business, but one has to wonder if Target ever thought about how its actions would sit with future Canadian customers. Good business isn't just about the ringing of cash registers.
Many of these U.S. companies are accustomed to holiday openings - they have easy access to exemptions and permits in their individual states. They're moving here because of our economy, relatively high employment and low corporate taxes - good enough reasons to open up a business in Canada. Workers shouldn't have to give up their holidays as well.
Toronto currently allows certain kinds of outlets to open on holidays, and we already know there's a blur of confusion about what employees are entitled to. The Ontario Employment Standards Act says workers have the right to refuse to work holidays without risking getting fire, and guarantees a holiday rate of pay for those who do work, but a lot of retailers like to self-govern.
According to Unpaid Wages, Unprotected Workers, a 2011 study by the Workers' Action Centre, 37 per cent of Ontario workers surveyed reported that they did not get public holidays off with pay, and over half of those who worked did not get the required premium pay.
Remember that Sunday was once a holiday, but no one gets extra wages now on the former "Lord's Day." Who would expect a holiday rate for a "normal" workday? I'm only guessing, of course, but if the city votes for holiday shopping, would we then have more "normal" workdays where no retail worker would be paid a holiday rate ever again? Just wondering.
Of the few malls outside the city that are allowed to stay open as bona fide tourist attractions, some are and some definitely aren't. On May 23, 2012, the Ontario Municipal Board sided with Bramalea City Centre, a major mall seeking holiday status. Many municipalities, Toronto included, allow stores to be open if they're in a "tourist" zone, but the OMB in this decision extended the 1991 legal definition to include "internal" tourism.
Raj Napal, the lawyer for retailers opposed to the ruling, says the judgment "created a legal precedent that may affect hundreds of thousands of retail workers and could allow other malls to get exemptions on this spurious basis."
I'm not surprised people turn to unions. Without these holidays, workers would be stressed, and so would the health care system. We have already hit the bottom of the list worldwide for amounts of vacation time, right along with China. The cultural landscape in Canada would change, too. Holidays would feel the same as any other day, with no uniqueness to them, even for customers.
Should we succumb to the pressure and model ourselves after our American neighbours, or hold fast to what we have always held dear in our Canadian culture - our innate sense of knowing when to draw the line?
I'm sure, deep down, you already have the answer to that.
Days businesses must close as per Holiday Shopping Bylaw New Years Day, Family Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Victoria Day, Canada Day, Labour Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day
Exemptions Businesses occupying less than 2,400 square feet selling food, antiques, handicrafts, fruit and veg, books, art, tobacco, pharmaceuticals (less than 7,500 square feet), gas, or are nurseries, licensed under the Liquor Licence Act or do car repairs
Tourist area exemptions Queens Quay West, Eaton Centre and Hudson's Bay Company, Downtown Yonge BIA, Bloor-Yorkville, Distillery District
Options under consideration
1| Leave things as they are;
2| Allow businesses to open at their own discretion;
3| Create more exempted tourist areas;
4| Allow retail to apply for holiday permits.