MONTREAL - Jobs are everywhere in U.S. discourse these days, but not where they are most needed -- attached to workers.
Talk of jobs is dominating economic news and -- depending on the day and the debate -- the U.S. political scene, as the governing Republicans and their Democratic challengers each make the case that their party is the savior of "America's workers".
As early as Monday financial markets were blipping -- some up, some down -- on rumors that Friday's employment report for the month of February would reveal more jobs being created than in recent disappointing months. December, for instance, yielded 1,000 new positions, 100 times less than some forecasts.
Three million jobs have been lost in U.S. manufacturing alone in the past three years, but earlier this month officials in the administration of President George W. Bush predicted the "jobless recovery" would turn the corner, offsetting the controversial "outsourcing" of posts overseas, particularly computer-related jobs to India.
But while the markets, politicians and headlines were poised to cheer, or jeer, in reaction to Friday's job numbers -- which in fact left unchanged the U.S. unemployment rate -- few people were asking what lies behind those figures.
For future workers at the biggest grocery stores in California, the largest state economy in the nation, jobs will be slimmed-down versions of the posts held by their senior colleagues.
Last weekend, 70,000 workers at Vons, Albertsons and Ralph's voted overwhelming to end their four-and-a-half-month strike, called in response to the grocery companies' plans to start making employees pay some of the costs of their health care insurance.
The owners backed down from that demand for existing employees, but in exchange, the stores will cut health and other benefits and wages of workers hired after Oct. 5, 2003.
Before the strike, workers at the stores earned an average of 12 to 14 dollars an hour in a 30-hour work week. About 65 percent of the employees are women.
Analysts agree that the California grocery stores took a hard line against their employees because of the imminent arrival to the state's grocery business of Wal-Mart, the world's retail giant.
The Arkansas State-based firm has not permitted labor unions at any of its 5,000-plus stores in 11 countries to date, so its labor costs are lower than those of its future opponents in the California grocery business, giving it a sizable competitive edge.
According to an official for a labor union that represents Wal-Mart workers attempting to organize in Canada's Quebec province, the store has a much higher turnover rate of employees than other retailers because of its poor working conditions.
Wal-Mart workers say that "if you're a good loyal employee, if you have to work a little extra longer than you're scheduled, you won't charge overtime. They frown on it. Of course if you put your time-sheet in and charge it, they'll pay it -- (but) you might just see your hours disappear the next week", says Michael Forman of the United Food and Commercial Workers.
"So there seems to be systemic abuse of unpaid overtime," he told IPS.
Forman says the retail industry, where most of the union's U.S. and Canadian members work, has seen a large shift from full-time to part-time jobs in recent decades -- tied to extended store-opening hours -- which has increased workers' insecurity.
"Think of what's missing now: first of all, what's missing is a full-time job. The culture of a workplace is missing too, because even if people sort of hate where they work, often it fills in their day -- they have friends they've been working with for years."
Also, says Forman, "the feeling of security about the workplace no longer exists, and there's a certain tension there, because as the employer has moved in a part-time direction ... while in a unionized workplace there are parameters about how people can be scheduled, the fact is that for most employees there is no guarantee over the medium term of what their income is going to be."
"They may get a certain number of hours this year; who knows what they're going to get next year?"
The growth of alternative forms of work to the full-time, full-year job became apparent in Canada in the mid-1980s, says Leah Vosko an associate professor specializing in gender, labor and social policy at York University in Toronto.
"We saw a growth in certain forms of part-time work, temporary wage work, and what I often call 'solo self-employment', or working on your own account... so the dynamics of insecurity in the labor market in Canada have been very much tied to these new work arrangements," she told IPS.
While many workers chose those non-standard forms of work, one must look at how that choice is defined, she adds.
About one-quarter of people working at part-time jobs or who were solo self-employed did so because they could not find a full-time permanent position, say Vosko and co-authors in an October 2003 report for the government's Statistics Canada.
Since 1989 about one-third of Canadian workers have been employed in other than full-time jobs, yet labor market policies continue to reflect needs of full-time workers, Vosko points out.
That means, for example, "if you are in a temporary, part-time job then you might be able to pay into unemployment insurance in Canada, but it doesn't really mean you can gain access to your entitlements because the system is based on hours (and) assumes the norm of a full-time, full-year worker", she adds.
While some of the trends are the same, the process takes a different shape in the United States, where "many more full-time jobs are quite low wage, and may exhibit dimensions of precariousness (which includes low income, limited control over working conditions and lack of regulatory protection)", according to Vosko.
According to a recent report of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the services sector -- which includes both some of the most highly-skilled and low-skilled jobs in the economy -- will account for most of the country's new jobs, at least until 2012.
"We know that a substantial amount of the employment growth has been in lower-wage industries (in the services sector), which are probably lower-quality jobs -- less job security; less access to health care insurance", according to Lori Kletzer, chair of the department of economics at the University of California, in Santa Cruz.
"If that's where the job growth is and we bemoan the loss of secure, well-paid jobs in manufacturing, then we have to turn to services and we have to think about at a societal level -- whether it's by legislation or other kinds of institutional change -- what might happen for those jobs," Kletzer adds in an interview.
A three-year study into the impact of economic globalization found, "in many parts of the world, especially in industrialized and middle-income countries, problems of high or rising unemployment have been compounded by additional pressures on the quality of employment".
"Real wages and conditions of work have been under pressure, partly as a result of increasing competition for export markets and foreign investment."
"There has also been growing insecurity among those at work, due to interrelated factors such as the erosion of the welfare state, labor market deregulation and the declining power of trade unions," adds the report of the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, released in February.
It calls for a new focus on "decent work" -- "employment must be freely chosen and provide an income sufficient to satisfy basic economic and family needs. Rights and representation must be respected, basic security attained through one form or another of social protection, and adequate conditions of work assured," adds the commission, created two years ago by the International Labor Organization (ILO).
© Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service