The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) is in a bit of trouble at the moment. It infuriated the country days ago by announcing dozens of layoffs along with the contracting of iGATE to provide temporary foreign workers as replacements (who the laid-off workers were to train). People quickly connected the dots and after a look at the bank’s record-breaking earnings announcement last year, the internet was soon awash with talk of boycotts. RBC responded, denying allegations and claiming they found new jobs for everybody terminated, but reporters have had little problem refuting this with further (ex)employee interviews and Federal permits.

The idea of losing jobs to cheaper foreign workers is rarely popular with either the left or right. While conservatives appeal to nationalism and xenophobia (“they took our jobs”), labour (quite rightly) points out that it’s really just a wage cut in disguise. Beneath the heated political rhetoric, though, exists a far more personal and viceral reason people are frightened and outraged by this kind of news. The sad fact is, we’re all replaceable, and if even bankers are at risk of this, then so is everybody else.

Let me be clear, I have absolutely no problem with “foreigners”. I’m all for opening every border, or better yet, abolishing the damned things altogether. We must always be wary of racist and xenophobic motives when it comes to these issues, even from apparent “allies”. I couldn’t care less whether my services were provided by Canadians, Mexicans or Turks – what does concern me is the conditions under which the work was done. In that respect, the notion of “temporary foreign workers” scares me because it’s a very precarious legal status typically used to enforce wages and conditions “Canadian” workers would never tolerate. I know, as I’m constantly told, that many Canadians do not “want” these jobs (and why’s that?), and that they’re often much better than people could get in Mexico or Jamaica (again, why?). While that may be true for (some) agricultural jobs, it clearly doesn’t apply here. If there were really no Canadians willing/able to do this work, there wouldn’t be anybody to lay off or stick around and train their replacements. Legally, this isn’t supposed to happen, but as many radio call-in shows have discovered over the last few days, there’s no shortage of major Canadian firms wo do it.

In any case, the fact that one of the country’s leading financial institutions is setting this kind of example is both shameful and telling. It’s a frightening reminder of how precarious all our positions have become, and not likely to be the last time we hear about something like this.

Why focus on the RBC? Aside from my long-term distaste for capitalism, it also brings up an interesting and notable political situation. Banks have been on the receiving end of a lot of protests over the past few years, with the RBC often taking the brunt of it. Most recently, they’ve become the focus of national efforts against the Tar Sands and related pipelines for their colossal investments in companies like Enbridge. Locally, marches and rallies have popped up outside the RBC’s head branch on more than one occasion.

As someone with a job that often takes me into banks, this can get a little complicated. While I detest the concept of banks, I genuinely like most of their employees (that I know). Contrary to common myth, most bankers aren’t “rich” (or even white, or men). Sure, there’s a few guys in suits with cushy offices, but most bank employees enjoy a (customer service) job that can be described as “decent” at best. I could say much of the same for government offices, real estate and property management/development firms. It’s an important lesson to keep in mind for any institution you oppose – the front line workers are rarely “the enemy”.

Which is exactly why I’m so glad that people are getting good and angry on behalf of laid-off bank employees. To my friends who work in banks, those angry protesters outside aren’t your enemies either. We might even have your back someday.

Our fight is with the bank as an institution and the role it plays in larger systems of control. That includes it’s role in financing the Tar Sands, just as it includes dodgy employment practices and general profiteering. RBC is one of the most powerful corporations in Canada, so it isn’t going to escape that kind of focus.

As far as these 45 layoffs are concerned, they raise a lot of bigger questions about RBC’s feelings toward these kinds of labour practices. Banks play a crucial role providing operating capital to businesses, and so have enormous influence over business practices. How would my chances of getting or keeping a business loan with RBC be affected if I told them I was looking to lay off, or bring in a bunch of temporary foreign workers? How about if I state objections to outsourcing or hiring temps?

The (north) American Dream of a life-long “career” that supports one’s home and family is rapidly disappearing. Precarious work is on the rise as traditional careers vanish. Each time this happens it only increases the pressure on companies, industries and even countries which still offer living wages and benefits to become more “competitive”. Whether this happens through outsourcing, temps, migrant workers (“legal” or otherwise), “contract workers” or simply never letting anybody reach “full time” hours, it takes a tremendous toll on working families.

If these strategies bring in more money (and they do), it’s not because more wealth is being created – only that less is being distributed. While this might look good for “the economy” on paper, it also excludes a growing number of people from those gains. In spite of a record corporate profits across the board in recent years, the general population still suffers from the recession. Our ability to spend and to repay loans never saw the same recovery, and the more it dwindles, the more ‘top heavy’ the economy becomes. With more money, investors are able to bid up each other’s share and bond prices, fostering “bubbles” and speculation. Without consumers to buy their products, these bubbles quickly go “bust”, as we saw with the last couple large market meltdowns. Anybody familiar with markets knows you don’t see those kinds of returns without a lot of associated risk.

This public uproar was long overdue. This trend and others like it have gone without attention for far too long. It’s a timely reminder that this kind of “efficiency” has serious personal consequences and that a “strong economy” is worth little if only a few see the benefits. The ire that RBC is now witnessing comes not just from these layoffs, but from the high position they hold in the Canadian economy and the horrible example they’re setting. It’s high time people took notice of what’s actually been happening in our workplaces for decades now, and where it’s heading if we don’t soon find an effective way to oppose it.

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