Opinion » Maxed Out

Labour pains in Whistler mark Labour Day


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Well, it's almost time to take a day off and celebrate the fact we'll all have to go back to work on Tuesday, the day after Labour Day. Those of us already working Labour Day so the rest of you slackers can raft, bike, bungee, hike, quaff, golf, eat and sleep your three-day weekend away can only laugh at the notion of a holiday to celebrate labour.

Labour Day is, perhaps, not the best time to ponder what the heck ever happened to the Age of Leisure we were all supposed to be enjoying by now. I should probably let the unfulfilled promise of 20-hour work weeks continue to remain one of those smouldering grudges burning somewhere deep in the recesses of my memory, right near the dying embers of flying cars, robot maids and rocket packs I still haven't been able to enjoy because some scientists somewhere haven't been working hard enough to make them reality.

But that's hard to ignore when all signs seem to point in the direction of labour losing ground to a new gilded age of exploitation.

Instead of increased leisure, the reality in many people's lives seems to be too many work demands crashing up against too many family demands and exhausting a limited supply of personal labour at the expense of what we euphemistically call leisure. When demand outstrips supply, prices go up, or so economists tell us. The price of all this demand seems to be diminished personal satisfaction, spiritual yearning and an inane drive to dash up to Whistler and pack as much of the good life into a weekend as humanly possible.

So for those of you actually celebrating Labour Day this weekend, sometime between your morning latte and your evening dessert, spare a kind thought for the minions beavering away to make all this possible, for they truly live lives of irony.

When they chat up an outlander, as they've been taught to do, there is a moment of pride when, in response to the inevitable query, they get to say they live here. The usual response is, "Lucky you." And it's true; they feel, we all feel, lucky... or blessed, or somehow more fortunate. We breathe clean air, we drink clean water, we swim in nice lakes, we hike and bike incredible trails, we are immersed in natural beauty. There's some pretty good skiing too.

But many also know the reality of living here is that they probably won't be living here too much longer. With scant exceptions — largely local government, some enlightened private enterprise and scarce, senior-level positions — Whistler jobs don't pay enough to create a future here. Carpe diem; it's a Whistler way of life.

The town, largely through the mandate of the Whistler Housing Authority, has managed to forestall the inevitable by, perhaps, a couple of decades. What's inevitable, you ask? An aging population... and all that entails.

For the better part of its current incarnation, the average age of Whistleratics seemed to hover around 28. It wasn't because we'd found Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth and ceased aging. It was because so few stayed much beyond that age. They couldn't afford to. They couldn't afford to settle down, which is to say buy a home they weren't in danger of getting evicted from when the owner sold or decided to rebuild. They couldn't afford to start a family. They knew they'd never be able to retire, whatever that means, because they'd never earn enough to stop working.

WHA housing gave many the chance to 'grow up' and settle down. One of the phrases I've heard repeated over the years by people moving into WHA housing has been, "We feel as though we can finally get on with our lives."

But the 'cost' of that solution is an aging population. Whistler's getting older. Second homeowners are retiring here. The pioneer hippy jocks who arrived in the 1970s and scratched out enough to buy in are drawing CPP and OAS and deserting the workforce. Those who were finally able get on with their lives are getting on with approaching middle age.

And who's coming to replace them?

Much has been written the past few months about Ottawa turning off the temporary foreign worker tap. The Chamber of Commerce is lobbying for Whistler to be seen as a "special" circumstance because of the crying need for workerbees. In other words, going for the cheap, easy fix.

The Chamber has been largely silent about improving wages, working conditions, recruitment efforts and guaranteed hours of work, all things that might make a season or a lifetime in Whistler more attractive.

No one's talking about the underlying demand problem. The seemingly insatiable demand for workers who are willing to work for lousy wages, insufficient hours that vary with the whims of management, exploitive labour practices, prohibitive rents and unpleasant working conditions.

No one's talking about the beast that's driving that demand. The overbuilt infrastructure of hotels and strata hotels. The new, high-capacity lifts that cram more and more skiers and riders into the same amount of terrain. The weekly festivals to busy up summer and the shoulder seasons. The need for ever-increasing numbers of tourists to feed the beast and ever-increasing numbers of workers willing to face the challenge of working multiple jobs with no guarantee of hours of work to keep smiles on everyone's faces.

Part of the reason no one's talking is because the town's largest employer — through historical good management, good luck and well-bargained deals — doesn't really face the problem. Whistler Blackcomb invested in building employee housing. They have no-cost season passes with which to sweeten their job offers. They have a proportionately greater need for seasonal employees who won't necessarily be back for a second season. They have a global profile and an army of former workerbees who remember their season at Whistler with a wistfulness that shines brighter given the workaday lives they moved on to. It ain't their problem.

It's everyone else's problem.

And other than moaning, I'm not hearing a lot of good ideas. So let me pose a question. Collectively, a lot of time, money and brainpower goes into luring tourists to Whistler. We've created festive reasons for people to come. We throw parties, give concerts, animate walkways and create excitement. We advertise, blanket social media, devise contests and blitz media outlets to sing our praises: Come to Whistler and have the time of your life.

What do we do to attract employees?

Living wage? Rarely. Guaranteed hours? Rarer still. Affordable passes? They seem to have lost their spirit. Great working conditions? Not according to the employees.

Ottawa's done this town a favour by turning off the tap of cheap, disposable foreign employees. Time to see if we're up to the challenge.

Happy Labour Day. Solidarity forever.



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