I was struck this week realizing that there’s a connection between having International Overdose Awareness Day and Labour Day within a week of each other. There’s actually a pretty big Venn diagram between the issues affecting substance users and issues facing workers, especially unskilled workers.
“We here in Canada need to be supporting our most vulnerable and I'm not just talking about folks that use substances,” said Karen Lomax, the Overdose Prevention Coordinator of HIV/AIDS Resources & Community Health (ARCH) at Tuesday’s commemoration of Overdose Awareness Day in Downtown Guelph.
“I'm talking about low-income households, which include folks with disabilities, folks using substances, the working poor, and the elderly who all have to choose between rent or food,” Lomax added. “It's a shame given how we expect folks to live and then we wonder why addiction is a problem. We need to change now before we're in such a mess that we can't possibly dig our way out.”
Lomax noted that for many of the people that use of substances, it’s the only way to get relief from the doldrums of poverty and paying so much of your paycheque to cover your rent that you can’t even afford small luxuries, like three square meals a deal.
If that describes you, you’re actually one of the lucky ones because the average cost of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Guelph right this minute is over $1,600 according to Zumper and Rentboard, two different apartment finding apps. Now from the pictures, these are nice looking apartments, but you won’t get a lot of time to enjoy them unless you have a well-paying job or a big trust fund.
To rent one of these apartments, if you’re on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), you will need to find an extra $500 to cover the rest of the rent. If you’re working a minimum wage service job 40 hours per week, you will make enough money pre-taxes to have $600 left over for the rest of the month, but getting 40 hours per week is never a guarantee in any of these jobs.
This is where the labour picture comes in because how the heck are you supposed to afford a place to live in a town where a one-bedroom apartment is $1,600, and where minimum wage is $14.25 while the living wage is now $17 according to the Ontario Living Wage Network? Who’s pushing for these workers to get the raise they so desperately need if they’re going to have any chance of getting out of poverty?
In days gone by this would be the purview of labour unions, but a few corrupt bad apples have tarred the entire idea of unions. Among the remaining unions, many of the leaders act like the heads of political action groups instead of ambassadors for labour to management, improving conditions and compensation for their workers and, by proxy, all workers.
Our politicians are obsessed with the idea of creating “good middle class” jobs in the new economy instead of raising up workers into the middle class by mandating them better pay. Fifty years ago, unskilled labour was welcomed and heralded as an economic driver and were fairly compensated, but then that labour moved from manufacturing to the service sector, and it was an accepted idea that this type of labour didn’t deserve fair compensation.
Around this same time, it became acceptable for other workers to look down on the unskilled labour in service-based businesses. Parents warned incorrigible children that if they flunked out of school, they’d end up making fries, serving meals, stocking shelves, or ringing things through the cash register.
I wonder, did parents in the 1950s tell their kids to pull their socks up or else they’ll be condemned to a lifetime of building appliances at Woods, or making car parts at Linamar?
I doubt it. Even before recent times, when our retail workers had to proctor people for mask wearing and physical distancing, the door was always open for patrons to abuse the world’s clerks, cashiers, and waiters. These were people that could have “made something” of themselves, but were too stupid, or lazy, or deficient to make a “real difference” in society.
Treat people like garbage, and they’ll start to think they are. The same can be said for the people trying to recover from substances.
“We put such pressure on folks to get sober and when they fail, we shame them,” Lomax said. “We call them names, we tell them they are dirty, and we certainly don't want them in our backyards.”
Affordable housing, a living wage, equal pay, and strong and well-funded social support systems. These are the things we should be fighting for this Labour Day, this election, and each and every day until these goals are achieved. Without them, we’re admitting that there are people in our society we’re willing to leave behind even though many of them already feel abandoned.