Tag Archives: legal aspects

(382) Switzerland holding referendum on basic guaranteed income

Switzerland.svgThe idea that an advanced industrial country will soon hold a national referendum on whether or not to make available to all adults a guaranteed  basic minimum income is absolutely fantastic.

What a role model for Canada!  Imagine knowing that you and your neighbours would never fall below a certain minimum standard of living ever again.  Imagine powerfully bolstering this society against precarious employment, downward mobility, food insecurity, social exclusion, austerity and crime while making it physically healthier and happier.  You know, sometimes there are magic bullets and some problems can be solved by throwing money at them.

Concern over inequality seems to have allowed Swiss activists to force a referendum on the basic guaranteed income which would be the equivalent of nearly three thousand Canadian dollars a month.  This is dramatic stuff: 120,000 signatures were quickly collected for  the petition required to secure the referendum, backed up by the emptying of a twelve-wheeled dump truck full of five cent coins in front of the Swiss parliament in Bern.  There were enough coins to represent each of Switzerland’s eight million people.  The date for the referendum has not been set but it follows legislation driven by public anger earlier this year that caps executive compensation.  Wow!  This is a very serious contrast to shut-down America, cut-back Britain and a Canada still deeply in the throes of failed neoconservative policy.  We bet many Canadians have no ability even to imagine this kind of prosperity and security.

Swiss vote for sweet minimum monthly wage: $2800
RT.com – see pictures of coin demonstration

(376) Charter challenge

File:Supreme Court of Canada.jpgIn 2010 an activist group undertook to employ Canada’s constitution against homelessness, poverty and social exclusion.  Not to be righteous and strident of course but among the functions of Canada’s constitution is the protection of equality, security of person, liberty and life itself: all things directly assaulted by homelessness, poverty and social difficulty.  The argument is made that a lack of affordable housing and cuts to social programs are contrary to the constitution and that the courts might be in a position to order the government to redress the damage done thereby. 

Alas, the case has been quashed.  The quashing judge expressed some understanding of the importance of a minimum standard of living and, we have to say, made a powerful, if obvious, point. Namely, that social policy is the business of parliaments, not so much is it the outcome of court decisions.  That’s a bit of a bomb toss if you ask us.  An appeal will be launched.

Homeless rights group vows to appeal dismissal of Charter challenge

image: Peregrine981 via Wikimedia Commons

(336) Thieves of Bay Street [Book review]

TTOBSThieves of Bay Street: How Banks, Brokerages and the Wealthy Steal Billions from Canadians
Bruce Livesey
Vintage Canada, Toronto, 2012
313 pages
ISBN: 978-0-307-35964-3
$21.00 paperback

Dishonesty, mismanagement and mediocre regulation in the financial sector burns Canadians to the tune of twenty billion dollars a year.  So says investigative reporter Bruce Livesey in his book Thieves of Bay Street, recently made available in paperback.

Livesey’s critique reverses the rosy description of this country’s financial sector that appeared in the wake of the American meltdown.  In that description, Canada’s banks and brokerages are seen to have dodged the ruinous calamity and moral disaster of the mortgage crisis and too-big-to-fail bank bailouts through better regulation and less inclination to rapaciousness and greed, because they were a sensible reflection of the country’s best qualities.

Livesey swings hard at all that.  Less than ten pages in he describes Bay Street as a “…wealth destroyer, a parasitic reaper of money from the middle and working classes, transferring it to the very people who run the financial industry and Canada’s wealthiest citizens.”  He works from the evidence.  By the time Livesay is done, Canada’s financial players are only marginally distinguishable in terms of character and behaviour from those of the United States or Great Britain, or indeed, the Third World.

The source of pain is the small, club-like financial elite operating the industry.  In turn, they are facilitated by fragmented, weak regulatory bodies whose decision-makers are usually drawn from the industry.  A constitutional weakness also renders Canada virtually unique among developed countries in that regulation of high finance is not a national responsibility. Instead, it is divided amongst thirteen subnational bodies.  Changing this has been on the radar of the present Tory government but is proving difficult and is seen to have encouraged international fraudsters of the worst kind to come to Canada and get busy.

Conrad Black starts the action in Thieves of Bay Street.  A household name and recently released from jail in America, Black’s issues revolve around fees and fraud.  Where once management handled money to advance a business and its investors they now maneuver millions while rationalizing a share for themselves at the expense of good governance and achievement through productive activity.  Corporations come and go quickly and vast sums are raked off by managers like Black regardless of outcome.  Notably, Black has chosen to litigate against Livesey, assuring the latter of valuable publicity.

Dozens of further examples of nasty behaviour towards corporate holdings, pensions, investors and employees unfold in this book.  Names like Hollinger, Nortel, Stelco, and YBM Magnex, Edward Jones are already familiar, others less so, all representing plenty of damage to Main Street.

The positive propaganda around Bay Street post-2008 really doesn’t survive a reading of this book, which is a bestseller and has been positively reviewed even in conservative newspapers like the National Post and the Globe & Mail.  Conrad Black was busted in Chicago, not Toronto.  Contrast even lifestyle entrepreneur Martha Stewart’s notoriety south of the border for an insider trading deal worth about $45,000 with the case of two Toronto financial sector lawyers described in chapter fourteen.  The pair scored about $10m in two quiet four-or-five year runs of insider trading, outed only after giving in to emotional instability and a series of sloppy moves described as “moronic”.

Fraud and greed on the part of individual players is one thing.  Livesey reserves some of his very strongest criticism for the regulators, underwriters, lawyers, analysts, and rating agencies.  This is the logistical tail of Bay Street and too frequently white collar criminals make handy use of this part of the industry.  “Sometimes, these ‘enablers’ consciously assist the criminals and are intricately involved in frauds; sometimes they simply turn a blind eye in order to make a lot of money; and sometimes they screw up. Either way, their behaviour is part and parcel of the investment world’s culture, one that suggests declining morals and dearth of concern for investors’ interests,” writes Livesey.

Canadian banks were party to the sub prime mortgage horror show in the United States and sold financial products to Canadians based on toxic real estate-related debt.  Not always with pretty results, either.  Livesey sees Canada’s banks and brokerages as extensively integrated to a global system that courts enormous risk and encourages a growing and destructive picture of inequality in wealth.  A system further seen to have extensive relationships to crime via a system of shadow banking.

Central to the positive image of the big Canadian banks after 2008 is the idea that they received nothing in the way of public-money bailouts as their American and British institutional cousins required to remain alive and not bring down their respective national economies along with themselves.  This myth has proved quite persistent.  Chapter eight, Bankers Behaving Badly, addresses it.  Indeed, Canada’s big banks have been “bailed in” since Victorian times you might say but have been privileged to the tune of  many tens of billions of dollars in response to recent global economic difficulty.  Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation helped the banks blur the impact of toxic assets.  Ordinary Canadian customers also pay very high fees to banks for their basic services.  The much trumpeted position of the banks is due as much to government help and ATM charges, not to mention public complacency, as fiscal prudence on the part of management.

Curiously, when we began reading this book with a review of it in mind for suburban-poverty.com two bank-related developments entered the news stream.  The first that several big Canadian banks have been officially described as “systemically important” that is to say, too big to fail.  The other was a report from Bloomberg about bank CEO pay for North America.  Canadian bankers are among the top tier for compensation, and are also named for being overpaid in proportion to the size and performance of their banks.  This is barely a month after the furor over outsourcing jobs at RBC (and later HSBC) and so we are reminded again of the huge role of Bay Street in the life of Canada, like it or not.

The more realistic our view of this complex, lucrative industry the better.  After reading Livesey’s book and blog it’s hard not to be pessimistic.  If Canadians are to be richer or poorer people over the coming decades a lot will depend on the money business.  Recent government interest in making the reality of Bay Street as sound and sensible as the image is welcome, Livesey suggests it may be too late.

Either way, suburban-poverty.com says “read this book!”

http://thievesofbaystreet.ca/

(314) Youth & work in Ontario

Newsboy_in_1905Tip stealing, outsourcing, illegal unpaid internships, low wages, unsafe conditions, harassment.  Young workers face these and other challenges here in Ontario too often.  Luckily, those same workers have a friend in Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based labour lawyer.  His website Youth and Work spells out his commitment to them.  The blog in particular is a worthy effort, full of deft and detailed discussion of the pressures facing young workers.  Youth and Work names and shames government officials, media outlets and all kinds of businesses that impose upon students, recent graduates and other young workers – often in clear contravention of employment law.  Mr. Langille has also posted a number of interviews on the site and they are educational, powerful reading.  This is no rusty sword in the fight against precarious employment, questionable business practices, low standards of living and exploitive tendencies.

Youth and work: a website about youths, workplace law, economics, labour markets, education, & public policy

image: Toronto newsboy selling Toronto Evening Telegram in 1905 via McCord Museum/Wikimedia Commons

(308) Royal what?

Royal_Bank_Building Toronto“That’s not what we’re doing.”

“What we are doing is perfectly legal.”

“We’re sorry.”

That’s pretty much how one of Canada’s largest, richest businesses responded to a burst of public outrage over what it thought would be a run-of-the-mill outsourcing of 45 Toronto-based IT employees to an Indian firm called iGate.  Could it be that Canadians are waking up to corporate power and abuse?

RBC can hardly cry poverty, they are a profitable bank capitalized at something like eighty billion dollars, so to get caught dismissing established employees to make use of a temporary worker program that allows for fifteen percent lower wages is a public relations disaster.  A turn that squanders a lot of the moral capital the bank shared with the rest of the sector for not having dumped Canadians into a sub-prime mortgage or bailout nightmare like their risk-worshipping British and American cousins came up with.

Also tough are the wider questions raised.  The list of major businesses lined up for the temporary worker program includes some of the most recognized names in the Canadian corporate caravan.  For example, Tim Hortons, the inescapable coffee shop so beloved of Canada’s working- and wish-they-were-working-class is on the list for the program.

The mass media has picked up the public’s indignation and the story seems to have legs, despite RBCs damage control effort via full-page print ads in major newspapers and online.  If all the cranky comments and Facebook flutter translates into closed accounts, loss of transaction fees and the like then this might be a learning moment for management and the board of the bank.  Certainly, Mr. Nixon, President and CEO of the bank, can’t have enjoyed the last week or so very much.  It isn’t in the selfish self interest of the bank to have a precarious, underpaid workforce and alienated customers.

Perhaps the public has learned something about the vulnerability of Canada’s massive and historically well-protected banks.  After two centuries of building profitable businesses in the second largest country in the world and emerging as global players the brand of Canada’s banking sector is perhaps more fragile than it realized.  The leverage of the public when it comes to modifiying the harmful behaviour of the banks has been glimpsed this week.  For the record, RBC puts its transaction fees up recently.

Labour groups have expressed doubt about the temporary worker program since it got going.  Unions are threatened in an economy based on flexible labour.  Additionally, word is not very good on the program from the workers inside it.  The whole deal says exploitation.  Conservative commentators like Andrew Coyne and Terence Corcoran are all over this controversy in their columns as an overblown emotional diversion which does a disservice to corporate Canada in its efforts to be its best possible self.  Such daring contrarians!

Corporate power and abuse like this, sanctioned by Ottawa, supports suburban poverty.  Adding insult to injury is the fact that the Greater Toronto Area, where the outsourcing was planned to take place, has a slightly higher rate of unemployment than the country at large, RBC is in the black and has paid out record bonuses in recent times.

Good work RBC!

Outsource Canada “I spent two days on this site!” matches the number of foreign workers in each province with the number of unemployed there.

Huffington Post Canada has added the RBC outsourcing fiasco to its ongoing coverage of middle class decline.
Temporary Insanity: RBC vs Canada’s middle class

RBC’s CEO Isn’t the Only Boss With an Obscene Salary

image: Siqbal via Wikimedia Commons

(297) Not rocket science [Report]

V-2 and MeillerwagenCanadians have been watching right-to-work developments in Wisconsin and Michigan for the last couple of years.  In those states and at home such packages of legislation are dear to neoconservative hearts and unfortunately are proving effective at putting downward pressure on wages and undermining unions.  Something like 200 laws restrictive to labour rights have been passed in Canada in nearly every province and by the federal government since the early 1980s.  The resultant discouragement of unions has contributed to rising inequality and given Canada a large volume of complaints regarding restricted union rights at the International Labour Organization.

Such developments are the topic of a labour conference held this week in Toronto and a new research report from the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights.  CFLR is an agency of the National Union of Public and General Employees which has 340,000 members.  The report is strong on the details of why we need to reexamine legislation that has an unhealthy effect on our society.  Inequality is a known negative social development and it has come to define this era for so many.

Less rights, lower wages and benefits result in anti-social situations.  No, not exactly rocket science.

Unions Matter: How the Ability of Labour Unions to Reduce Income Inequality and Influence Public Policy has been affected by Regressive Labour Laws
21-page .pdf copy of report

image: V-2 rocket on trailer, IWM via Wikimedia Commons

(293) Students out there

800px-Old_Finch_and_Kengate_in_Scarborough_RougeStudents usually form a portion of most communities when those communities reach a certain size and come to host insitutions of higher learning.  Generally, this is all to the good.  To be in any way a progressive and economically competitive society, education is advised.  Part of that equation means keeping students, housed, fed, clothed and healthy while they study.  We see friction developing out there on the perimeter where housing is concerned.

Last month in the Toronto Star there was a piece about a city raid in Scarborough on a rooming house near a University of Toronto satellite campus and a Centennial College campus.  Inspectors entered a fairly ordinary-looking home designed for a single family and apparently found “…11 people …crammed together paying $500 to $700 per month each for spaces created by subdividing rooms at 1289 Military Trail.” (GTA section of the Star February 11, 2013)

This conversion is alleged to have been done without permits or inspections and without reasonable regard to the provision of fire exits, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors or proper heating and ventilation.  The owner of the property mentioned above, at the time of inspection, was potentially liable for fines of up to $70,000.  They, and other owners of ad hoc student residences seem reluctant to talk to the media.  Perhaps they may see themselves merely as housing entrepreneurs responding to increased enrollments at nearby schools.  On a bad day, however, they could be seen as slum landlords, taking advantage of a group who may find themselves in a weak position because of their status as students.

Many communities have come to cherish the “eds and meds” portion of the post-industrial economy.  It seems that suburban communities in particular value the presence of colleges and universities for the good paycheques and prestige associated with them.  Schools in turn may find a variety of incentives for expanding in ex-urban areas including cheaper land, physical space and a student-age population ready to study.  Housing in the communities near satellite schools simply may not have adapted quickly enough to student housing needs for a variety of reasons and the schools themsleves may not have invested in their own, on-campus housing infrastructure.  The results seen in the article below model what is happening all over North America in proximity to places of higher learning.  Is it really a great idea to leave housing our future taxpayers, voters, citizens, entrepreneurs, professionals and tradespersons to the random, frequently sloppy efforts of unknown landlords?

No, of course not.  This phenomena must be seen as part of a pattern of suburban-poverty.

Scarborough homeowners charged with running illegal rooming house: bylaw enforcement officers have charged a trio with illegally housing 11 students in a Scarborough home.