07/12/2012 10:32 EDT

Canada Manufacturing Job Losses: Study Finds Laid-Off Auto Workers Still Struggling Years Later


Canada’s labour market may be bouncing back, but many of the auto workers who used to power southwestern Ontario’s manufacturing sector continue to face job insecurity, dramatically diminished earnings and ongoing mental health issues, a new study has found.

A joint effort of the Canadian Auto Workers’ union (CAW) and McMaster University, the study offers a glimpse into the hidden consequences of a labour market shift that has increasingly seen good-paying manufacturing jobs replaced with more insecure service sector work, says author Sam Vrankulj.

“Most people can no longer afford the quality of life that they had previously, and that’s had implications not only on them, but on their family,” Vrankulj, a researcher in at McMaster labour studies department, told The Huffington Post.

“There might be a recovery going on, but it’s definitely a bad jobs recovery.”

Released on Thursday morning, the report details the findings of an ongoing study tracking the experiences of workers laid off from three southwestern Ontario auto plants as a result of cutbacks and closures in the run-up to the recession: Chrysler’s vehicle assembly facility in Brampton; the Collins & Aikman auto parts production facility in Scarborough; and the Kitchener Frame automotive parts production facility. (Workers in these plants were represented by the CAW.)

Based on interviews conducted in 2011, several years after the layoffs occurred, the second phase of the study found that while some workers had landed on their feet, the majority faced significant financial problems.

“A day doesn’t go by where I don’t worry about how I’m going to pay my bills,” one worker told researchers. “The first year or so was OK because I had severance ... but the last couple of years [have] been really tough. I had to sell my house … I can’t see ever being able to buy one again.”

Of those surveyed, 63 per cent said they were worried about paying their bills; 40 per cent had difficulty meeting debt obligations and nearly half said they had done without something they needed in order to pay their rent or mortgage.

The first phase of the study, released in 2010, was based on interviews conducted with 260 workers in 2009, shortly after the layoffs occurred.

By the time researchers checked in with 130 of those workers again in 2011, most of the Chrysler workers had been recalled to their jobs at the Brampton plant. But those laid off from the other facilities weren’t as lucky. While most had found other jobs, many were working in contract or temporary positions. Dramatically reduced wages were commonplace: the earnings of the majority of Kitchener Frame workers had dropped by at least $10 per hour; meanwhile, most Collins & Aikman workers were making $15 an hour or less, at least 20 per cent below what they were earning when that facility closed in 2007.

Stress, relationship and health problems were also common among the workers that had been laid off from their jobs in Kitchener and Scarborough, with the majority reporting a partial or total loss of extended medical benefits.

“My marriage fell apart,” one worker said. “I started drinking heavy. I’m on medication for depression. Losing your job at my age can ruin your life.”

“I have three kids,” said another. “We have to pay for all their drugs when they get sick. My wife works part-time. None of us have been to a dentist since I lost my job because we can’t afford it.”

Nearly half of those surveyed reported difficulty sleeping. More than 31 per cent of respondents said their physical health had deteriorated as a result of being laid off, while 26 per cent reported a deterioration in their mental health.

Not all of the findings were pessimistic, however. Fifty-five per cent of respondents said they said the layoff as an opportunity to that their career in a “new and better direction,” and many had enrolled or completed basic skills or specific job retraining since they lost their jobs. More than 60 per cent said they were either “very optimistic” or “somewhat optimistic” about the future.

While CAW president Ken Lewenza praised the success of government-funded workplace action centres and retraining programs, he says the study “provides pretty clear evidence to contradict the notion that all jobs are created equal.”

“There’s a problem in our economy when the jobs being created don’t provide stability, when they fuel insecurity and when they make people less healthy,” he told HuffPost in an email. “This is exactly the track we’re heading down and there are huge negative implications for Canadians as a result.”

Over the past decade, Canada has lost 500,000 manufacturing jobs, 300,000 of which disappeared from Ontario communities, according to the CAW.

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