Summers in Canada mean many things, particularly more leisure time for students, youth and families. And one of the most beloved summer leisure activities is rounding up the crew and venturing down to the visiting midway—be it the Stampede Fairgrounds in Calgary, the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, or any other exhibition or fair.
However, in spite of the bright lights and cheerful façade that traditionally has come to characterise the fair-going experience, there lies something far more sinister than the poly-saturated fats found in most carnival foods. What emerges is a reality of wide-spread labour violations whose magnitude would seem almost as ridiculous as the clowns, if they weren’t so heinous and shameless. Like most aspects of our modern capitalist epoch, it appears that activities aimed at children are not exempt from the ugliness of corporate greed and bourgeois self-interest.
That exploitation exists under capitalism should no longer be a surprise, less now in the face of the ever-worsening economic troubles facing working people; be it corporate downsizing, lock-outs, or the spiralling costs associated with living a comfortable life (not the least of which is the price of gasoline which has now hit record highs across Canada, far surpassing the $1.00/ litre mark). But the fact that such faceless exploitation is carried out at the fair should still be a source of outrage for all working people and patrons of the midway. What we see with the case of Conklin Shows—a company with offices in Alberta, Ontario and Florida that is currently set up in Toronto for the Canadian National Exposition—is a wide array of labour violations affecting several, often disempowered layers of working people.
The first layer of exploited workers that we see is the young workers, often under the age of legality. For many of these youths the allure of working on the midway no doubt offers them a break from the drudgery of traditional youth-oriented jobs (usually retail and unskilled labourer positions) and the promise of pocket money for unemployed youth. However, not all that glitters (or in this case, “shines” due to the neon lights) is gold. Truly, it is not uncommon to see youth as young as 13 or 14 years of age working shifts of as many hours as they have years of life! And all this at minimum wage, assuming that their naiveté hasn’t already been capitalised upon by corrupt franchise supervisors and managers.
The exploitation That exploitation exists under capitalism should no longer be a surprise, less now in the face of the ever-worsening economic troubles facing working people; be it corporate downsizing, lock-outs, or the spiralling costs associated with living a comfortable life (not the least of which is the price of gasoline which has now hit record highs across Canada, far surpassing the $1.00/ litre mark). But the fact that such faceless exploitation is carried out at the fair should still be a source of outrage for all working people and patrons of the midway. What we see with the case of Conklin Shows—a company with offices in Alberta, Ontario and Florida that is currently set up in Toronto for the Canadian National Exposition—is a wide array of labour violations affecting several, often disempowered layers of working people.suffered by the youth can often pale in comparison to the plight of the migrant labourers, most often hailing from South Africa. Truly, this group suffers the most. For them what awaits is not only long hours—often longer than 14 hours a day—but also very little in the way of time off since it is not uncommon for these workers to work every single day that the midway is in operation, as well as on the setting up and tearing down of all facilities as the carnival ventures from one town to another. But, that is not all. Perhaps the most odious aspect of their exploitation, and truly of the Conklin company, is the wage most of these workers are given. In Alberta, one of the most anti-labour provinces, it was quite common to hear complaints of wages as low as THREE DOLLARS AN HOUR by the South African employees. Add to this the fact that many of these workers also had to pay for their trip to the carnival, as well as their daily meals. Only accommodation is given, usually in substandard and crowded bunks with limited access to functioning facilities to wash up.
Nevertheless, these infractions are not only loathsome due to the hardships being faced; they bring with them another problem: safety. Quite simply, an over-worked and improperly cared for worker will not be able to contribute 100%, no matter how many threats from supervisors or promises of a bonus at the end of the tour are made. It is surely understandable that a worker working under such conditions is not the best candidate to be working with machines that could easily claim scores of lives if improperly set up to a small degree. More disturbing still is the fact that so many children walk through the gates onto the midway.
But, Conklin is no exception. Exploitation is part and parcel with capitalism and it has been so ever since its inception. Nor are the actions of this company unknown to the authorities. As is their reputation— and interest! – the local provincial authorities just turn a blind eye. After all, Conklin and right-wing government both represent the supremacy of profits over the livelihoods and safety of honest working people.
This year happened to be the first that accusations of wrong doing were aimed at Conklin. The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) took notice of the injustice afoot and AFL President Gill McGowan was quick to point out: “North American Midway, parent company of the Canadian Midway Co. [of which Conklin is a division], has been grossly exploiting young South African workers,” adding “we have teenagers who have been worked 17 hours a day. They have endured terrible living conditions, and, at the end of the day, they have made less than minimum wage for their labour.”
These sombre words fly directly in the face of the Alberta Human Resources and Employment Department spokesperson Sarah Doyle went as far to say that Alberta investigators were “satisfied that the Conklin workers were being paid wages equalling or exceeding Alberta’s $5.90 per hour minimum wage, plus overtime pay, when the total pay package (including free accommodation and bonuses) is considered.”(Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: Aug. 3, 2005). However, it is obvious that the department failed to take into account several things: primarily that the bonus is paid only at the completion of the carnival tour (which starts in January and ends in late October), and that the accommodation granted is grossly substandard, with it being common for two people to be sharing a room with each only having a square meter of space to themselves (Edmonton Journal: July 31, 2005).
On the topic of excessively long work days we see just how cynical the midway management and Alberta Human Resources and Employment Department get. Here Midway operations manager Howard Pringle said that complaints of 17 hour days are simply allegations because the fairgrounds are only open 12 hours a day (Edmonton Journal: July 31, 2005). As most working people know, the work day doesn’t end just because the shop closes down—this is true across the board, whether one is employed in retail, administrative or basically any other job classification. Quite simply, work includes set up and clean up each day, thereby adding hours to the 12 that Pringle mentions. He goes on to add that workers “typically” receive two or three hours of breaktime, something which is also uncommon since many of the employees are either over-zealous youth or migrant workers not aware of local labour legislation who prefer to keep working so as to maximise each day’s pay, not realising that they are legally entitled to take a break.
The choice to employ South Africans is not surprising, and it is not because they have difficulty in finding employment in their native country or simply because it’s hard to find young people willing to commit a year on the carnival circuit as Alfie Philips, chief operating officer with the Canadian Midway Company alleges. Quite simply, these workers will be easier to exploit since they hail from a country whose currency is worth far less and whose labour standards are weaker. This has generally been the reason labourers are sought from other countries, as can be seen with the example of Mexican migrant farm labourers in the United States. These workers (Conklin says it employs more than 100 South Africans) most likely aren’t up to date on each province’s labour standards, and it’s highly dubious that the bosses would let such information be easily known to them.
This is just one more example of what we have come to expect. However, people are starting to question, “why are we paying for public broadcasting when all we get is the same corporate agenda?” People are starting to demand change. At the moment the majority of the media is owned and controlled by a small number of rich men, and even the one public broadcaster is trying to emulate their methods. How can there be any serious discussion about the issues facing society when only the rich control the airwaves? In Venezuela, this debate has reached its most acute stage with corporate-owned TV stations deliberately backing, organizing, and promoting a coup against the democratically elected and widely supported government. In response, media workers and the general public are putting forward the demand of people’s control of the airwaves.
The case of Conklin shows that there truly is no worker that is safe from the profit motive. The only way that the Conklin workers can achieve any sort of justice and fair treatment is by organizing themselves into a union that can put pressure on the company and on government, demanding decent conditions and standards. This struggle reminds us of the hypocrisy of the capitalist class and of capitalism. Any system which can make something as idyllic as a summer carnival an opportunity to enforce slave-like labour practices is rotten to its very core and must be replaced.