09/16/2013 12:30 EDT | Updated 09/16/2013 12:30 EDT

Why Canada Needs Retail Jobs to be Better Jobs

What does retail have to do with work, wealth, and the future of Canada? Concisely, the answer is a great deal (pardon the pun).

Imagine that Canada is a retail store in which 100 people work. 10 managers make $80,000 per year. One manager of the 10 trumps them all: he gets over $190.000. And regardless of what happens in the store or to the other employees, his income increases. The other 90 people -- a majority of whom are women -- work as salespeople and cashiers, or in the stock room. 45 of them make less than $30,000 per year. Many make less than $20,000 per year.

This analogy introduces the increasingly polarized distribution of income in Canada. But the situation in real retail stores is often even worse. A staggering 48 per cent of workers in retail are now part-time. Because of the low-wages paid by most retailers, many full-time workers fall below the poverty line. So the situation for the growing ranks of Canadians only able to secure part-time hours is even grimmer.

Part-time workers are technically "employed," but their earnings are nowhere near sufficient for even a modest standard of living. And particularly in provinces like Ontario where the minimum wage has been frozen for years, many people's paycheques stagnate, while costs continually increase. This is bad news for us all.

The reality is that more Canadians work in retail than in any other sector or industry. Canadians are more likely to be retail salespeople than to hold any other occupation. And 40 per cent of retail workers are 45 years of age or older.

When more people are earning low wages, they have less money to spend at local businesses and in their communities. When fewer workers have benefits, health care like dentistry, optometry, and physiotherapy is harder to afford or out of reach. When Canadians' time is spent stressing about how to make ends meet and plan for the future, our national quality of life worsens. Lousy jobs drag down our entire country.

Thankfully, in the world of retail there are also lessons about how to fix this unsustainable mess. An increasing number of retail workers want to raise the low-wage floor. Some are choosing unions. Others are campaigning for living wages in retail and across sectors. Workers at the world's largest retailer, Walmart, are uniting for change in Québec, and building a dynamic movement for change across the US.

These efforts foster empathy and solidarity, and unite people within and beyond retail. They also remind us that there are alternatives to the frustration and indignity of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty-wage employment. But good jobs do not spontaneously appear; they are created by workers who organize, politicians with the wisdom and foresight to legislate higher standards, and employers who genuinely value their employees. Although such retailers are currently in the minority, they do exist, and succeed. A number of small business owners who see employees as valued resources and co-workers -- not as expenses -- are already reaping the benefits. Workers who feel respected are loyal, productive, and more likely to provide excellent service.

Better jobs would benefit the nearly two million front-line retail workers in Canada. Good retail jobs would also benefit their families, small and large businesses, our communities, and society at large.Particularly when large retailers amass hundreds of millions or billions in profit, and have enough capital to buy other retailers, they have no excuse for paying poverty wages. And countries like Sweden continuously prove that the combination of strong unions, good managers, and robust social programs means happy citizens, a prosperous economy, and good jobs -- including in retail.

The data is clear: we don't just need jobs, we need better jobs. Imagine a Canada where poverty-wages are a mere relic of history. That can, and must, be our future.