Wednesday, July 18, 2012

ECON 101: Sustainability Work is not Sustainable

I saw two call outs for food activist writing in the last few days.  One was for a chapter/story in an anthology of food writing. The other was for article proposals in a well known magazine on environmental matters.

Reading through the details of both of these call outs for contributors got me thinking about an announcement that was made to a large room of food activists here in Toronto recently.  The announcement was made by one of the partner organizations for the event.  The executive director proudly announced that they had taken the funding for one full time job and cleverly carved out eight one day a week jobs. This cleverness was applauded by the gathering.  I was appalled.

I had seen the advertisement for the eight (identical) part-time positions.  The position demanded a wide range of skills and talents but only offered $15/hour with no benefits (unless you count TTC tokens and lunch every second week) and for only eight hours on that one day.  The contract was for only six months with no guarantee of renewal.  And oh yeah, you had to be a welfare recipient.  So that means that this clever NGO took a job originally intended as one decently paid full time position and created eight ridiculously underpaid jobs out of it.

Underpaid you ask?  Doing the math:  8 hours/day one day a week for 6 months = $3120. If you multiply that amount by 8 for the number of part time positions they created then you get $24960.  So the original grant was for one full time job that would have earned one person $24,960 for six months.  That full time worker would have had benefits and taken home less than that but still it is recognized that this is a living wage and values the wide set of skills necessary for the advertised position.  So back to the eight people who were'lucky' enough to land one of the new part time jobs.  The before tax low income cut off (LICO) line (based on 2006 data) for a single person the city of Toronto is $22,637 and for a family of two is $28,182. Even if each of these people were able to land similar jobs for the other four days of the week - which you and I both know is extremely unlikely, their equivalent earnings would only be $3120 x 5 = $15,600 which is marginally better than the LICO for a single person and pretty close to the LICO for a two person household.  And just because TTC tokens and an occasional meal are thrown in doesn't make the reality of the meager income any more attractive.

At the end of another recent event I volunteered at, every single person from the participating organizations was called out and asked to stand to receive applause as thank-you for their efforts for arranging the event. All of the people asked to stand were getting paid by their own NGOs to organize the event. At the very end of the long list of people called and asked to stand, the MC for the event mumbled "And oh yes, the volunteers too" and didn't ask us to stand but merely started clapping and the audience weakly joined along while also rising from their seats hurrying to get out of the hall (it had been a long day and the long list of contributors and clapping was unnecessary).

Both of the call out for food activist writing submissions I mentioned at the beginning of this post had a token honorarium offered in lieu of a meaningful payment.  A payment that values the work of writing.  In reading these announcements I was also reminded of the truism: the rich get richer.  For surely the only people writing for these type of outfits (Huffington Post being the classic example) are people with decent jobs, businesses or cushy retirements.  Officially, in Toronto, for a single person, that would be a job that earns at least $22,637 (using very old 2005 data).  Anybody else that takes on these kind of positions ($15/hour or token honorariums) is not realizing that by accepting these types of opportunities they are contributing to an unsustainable world.  Not in the climate change way but in the economic change kind of way.

Women have historically been the volunteers.  The ones whose often back breaking work is not valued.  The new economic reality is that now not only women are doing slave type labour but also students and the long term unemployed.  The people desperate for the crust of a loaf of bread  - to toss a Dickensian metaphor out there.  Earning under $22,637 in the city of Toronto is the seemingly new normal in the activist circles I move in.  Applauding the people who manage to earn (significantly) more than that and those that dream up clever ways to perpetuate poverty is ironic in rooms filled with people that publicly pledge allegiance and work towards food justice and food policy change making.

The food justice community in Toronto, with their offerings of meager dollars for work that wants to eradicate food poverty, seems to be part of the problem and not the solution.

Harsh?  Please offer your feedback.

I'd like to see evidence that at least one other person concurs with my observations and conclusions.


  1. I'm glad to see you throw a floodlight on the reality of such backwards beneficence. It truly perpetuates the poverty it is deemed to be eradicating.
    And I have brought up the subject of volunteerism out here at the edge of the Atlantic and its inherent multi-generational misogyny. The work of the downtrodden (mainly women) never being honoured monetarily, or as you mentioned above, coming behind those who are paid.

    1. The irony of this post is that I was asked to do some free work with a food organization in Toronto the very next day. I was offered a free membership in lieu of payment. A $90 membership for a fairly significant amount of work for the year. Ha.



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