A labourious day

In Canada today is a day that many overlook and ignore. It’s also a day when you cease to be able to wear white — I must change out of my light pink pants immediately. For those who are paying attention it’s also a day to look back and thank the workers rights movement for things like weekends, paid vacation, parental leave, overtime and sick days. I saw a post on Facebook reminding me of these great things. It could be so much worse.

It could also be so much better. As I prepare to leave the world of unstable and risky short-term and freelance creative work I am terrified to be a part of Canada’s work system. I will give up the freedom to take a trip or go out and run errands that need to be done during business hours. I will be limited to two or three weeks off each year — given that many people don’t get any extra time off at Christmas that eats either into your family time or marginal vacation time.

Many offices have a grinding work culture that leaves no room for being a happy individual. People are expected to work way more than 9–5 and end up with little time to live their lives. Eating lunch at your desk is a normal and sometimes expected behaviour — one that is appalling and should not be tolerated. I worked one job where people got confused that I insisted on taking my full one-hour lunch break to eat in the lunch room and then walk around.

Part-time jobs are brutal and unstable. I know somebody who gets between 20 and 35 hours a week but never knows how many until the last minute. When I worked my last retail job they engaged in all sorts of labour practices that should be or are illegal like cancelling shifts at the last minute, having few full-time staff and scheduling people for really short shifts (I didn’t work a single shift long enough to require a break but was scheduled five days a week).

Our system punishes women for having children and is one of the big reasons women still earn so much less than men. The prospect of having a child just seems daunting. For many women you can’t have both kids and a great career. It just doesn’t work that way.

While this may not be true of all offices or companies I hear friends complaining these problems all the time. It seems endemic to the North American economy where we are constantly working harder for less.

Part of why I wanted to study in Europe instead of Canada was that after my exchange I didn’t think I could go back to the grind of a Canadian school. During my undergrad I spent the last two months treading water and abandoning my social life to hand in all of my assignments. Sure I got top marks but I was still doing just enough to write all my papers and study for an endless string of midterms.

In Copenhagen it was much more relaxed. There was work to do but we were still expected to have lives. They knew that uni was about personal growth and relationships as much as it was about our classes. I hope that the University of Edinburgh will be the same.

I am tempted to stay in Europe after I graduate largely because of the work culture here. You work but you also get to live. They have more liberal time off and encourage employees to use it. Some get six weeks. In some places minimums are four. They don’t eat lunch at their desks or stay late. They are expected to have their own lives and social programs make it easy for workers to balance work and life.

Our lack of a national pharmacare, dentistry, optometry and physical therapy program means that you have to have benefits to gain access to these things. Working freelance was great but you can’t afford to be sick or to have bad eye sight. Our extremely expensive childcare and poor maternal leave standards mean that having children is expensive and places a high burden on women.

Part-time employees need to be treated with respect and have rights. They should get benefits just like everyone else. This would discourage companies from hiring a slew of cheaper part-time employees. Part-time work in all fields should play a greater role. By giving people the choice to work part-time in a professional job they can have time for their kids or a hobby or creative pursuits. In places like Switzerland part-time work is common. For me it would mean being able to go to an office some of the time and get benefits but still having time for photography, drawing and writing. For parents it means having a bit more time with the kids. For those wanting to retiree but not go all the way it can mean a lighter workload.

I am thankful for weekends, safety standards and vacation days but it still seems like Canadians are far behind those living in Switzerland, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. I don’t want to have to choose between having a life and passion projects and the stability and benefits you need to survive. Sadly I probably do.

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