Downhome Magazine

Pay Equity

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Back when I was a young boy of twelve or thirteen there wasn't a lot of summer jobs that young people could avail of. We didn't have all the fast food outlets or coffee shops you see all around today. The only work available was with the local fish merchants who although they employed many hundreds of people, the pay was dismal. I'm not out here to condemn or praise anyone. I'll let heaven and hell do that for me. Just remember if you will that my story took place not so long ago.

The first time I actually worked for wages was up on the hill, some distance from my home where myself, my older brothers and many of our friends worked spreading salt fish on flakes to dry. My first hourly wage was thirty cents per hour. We would spread fish "heads and tails" on these long fish flakes made of sticks covered at the top with chicken wire. Later in the evening we would take the fish off the flakes, stack them in neat piles onto wooden pallets, and cover it up with plastic. The next morning we would uncover the fish and spread it out again on the flakes. When the fish had dried after several days spread out in the sun, the company truck would come by and we would load the dry fish onto the truck. The fish was taken "down below" to the plant where it was packed into fifty pound boxes for shipment to New York and other places. Sometimes, a few of us got to go down with the truck to help offload the fish.

Since my story is supposed to be about wages more than a story of curing salt fish, forgive me if I have strayed somewhat, the two are so closely connected it can't be helped. Cod fish is fresh, even though it lies in salt water, when it is caught by the man fishermen around the bays and coves within those bays it is gutted, split to remove the back bone or "sound bone" and then put in heavy salt for a time. The fish merchant sends his men to buy it from you and continues the process of curing the fish at his premises. Some is sold for a higher price by the fishermen already dried. My history lesson for today.

When the salt fish first came to us as we worked on the hill, it was very wet, this was called "waterhorse" because it had recently been washed by machine down below. By the way the waterhorse fish was very wet and also much heavier than when it was dried. Every time the fellow in the trunk threw you a yaffle of fish, you would be sprayed with cold salty water, and after a couple of hours of this, soaking wet from head to toe. But all in a day's work, you could change when you went home at dinnertime which is whenever the fish is all spread. Later that evening, it's back up the hill to the the fish off the flakes.

I did eventually get to go down below with one of the trucks and by some twist of fate, I got to work in the salt fish loft. I got a big raise - in fact it was twice my previous salary - sixty cents an hour. I was twelve years old at the time. I thought with that kind of money I could buy a big car and have some uniformed chauffeur drive me around town.

That was my first year working in the salt fish trade, you might say. Next summer I was hired on again, no working my way down from the hill this time. We started at 8 o'clock in the morning, had a lunch break at noon, usually stayed at work because it was too far to walk home, eat lunch and walk back again in one hour. Quitting time was not so certain, as most evening we would have to walk home very fast at 6 o'clock, then come back to work until someone said you could go home.

How many times did I hear the skipper who owned the plant say, "If you don't come back tonight, don't come back tomorrow." If I had a nickel for every time I heard that, I could have invested in the local utility company myself, like the skipper did. Imagine my surprise on my first payday of my second year on the job when I learned my wage was fifty cents an hour - full ten cents less than the year before. A brilliant business plan, if you stop to think about it, the longer you're in the business, the less it costs you to operate.

Good for the skipper, but even at the tender age of thirteen years old, I figured it out, if I hung around here long enough I'd be working for nothing. Business 101 at Upper Canada College where all the rich kids go. But this is not the end of my story, there is more to come. So pour yourself up another cup of coffee, or something stronger if you prefer, and sit a spell longer. It gets more interesting as we go along.

A schooner came to the plant that year with a load of salt bulk fish from down around Fogo Island. It was a wooden schooner which was powered by a diesel engine but also rigged for sail. Myself and two other young fellas were assigned to unload this vessel. It had a forward hatch, the opening of which was approximately four feet square. So we uncovered the hatch with the help from the crew of the boat. After uncovering the hatch, the crew stepped aside and we three offloaded the boat ourselves.

So this is where it gets real interesting, I learned through the day from talking with the other boys working with me, that we were all three of us being paid a different hourly wage. Mine was the lowest at fifty cents per hour, the fellow beside me who was a year older got my previous year's wage of sixty cents, while the third person, a boy of seventeen was earning 78 cents per hour. I imagine he must have made about 85 cents an hour the year before, taking into account the business model I mentioned earlier.

So let's review the situation with an open mind. Three boys, standing in a hatch about four foot square, each of us throwing yaffle of fish after yaffle of fish to the people onshore one after the other. Each person performing the same fanction at the same speed, yet each one is paid differently. So I don't know about you, but it seems to me we were being paid for our age rather than our work. Now we couldn't do anything about that, you'll have to take that up with our parents.

Now, in the autumn of my life, looking back on the whole affair, I can see it for what it really was - legalized salvery - aided and abetted by the government of the day. Men and boys doing the same hard physical labour for long hours and more expected of them when the normal day was over. There was no standard working day, therefore no overtime wage for hours worked beyond the norm. Men with families, mostly big at the time, earned the same as boys with neither. A set of multi-layered minimum wage laws based on age and gender that encouraged the use and the exploitation of children. Let's not forget the words of the skipper, "if you don't come back tonight, don't come back tomorrow."

It was the same in the construction industry, men paid less than a dollar per hour and charged two dollars a day if they were in a camp. Up in the lumber woods cutting pulp wood by the chord where my father and his father and brothers worked. Sleeping on dirt floors covered with boughs, no hot water to wash themselves on their clothes. Living on beans and bread with "work till you drop" the order of the day. What can one expect in a country where the poor still subsidize the rich and corrupt politicians pass laws that favour the corporation over the family, a legal entity with no mouths just pockets to fill, over flesh and blood human beings. Not much has changed.

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