By: Erica Wilson
Erica Wilson is the Communications Director for the World Federalist Movement Canada. She is also a Director on the Board of the Toronto wing of the World Federalist Movement.
In countries across the world, the cost of living has been increasing at a rate that outpaces the growth, or lack thereof, of wages. Rising inflation has challenged the ability of the average household to make ends meet. The consensus is that we’ve entered a recession, a phenomenon that has become far too common. Cycles of booms and busts are a fixture of our economic reality, with the cycle repeating roughly every 10 to 15 years. Whether it’s conflict-related supply chain challenges, a global pandemic, the 2008 housing crash, or the 1980s savings and loans scandal, each period of economic woe has also had those who emerged wealthier than ever.
Pandemic Profiteering and the Weston Family
In Canada, attention has been focused on the most recent profiteer of the pandemic-era economic crisis: Galen Weston Junior. The mildmannered billionaire is the owner of the global retail empire Loblaw Companies Ltd and Choice Properties Real Estate Investment Trust; both of which are incorporated under George Weston Limited. Weston Jr. took over after his father Galen Weston passed away in 2021. Loblaw Companies operates under several different banners in Canada as well as globally; some include No Frills, Shoppers Drug Mart, Superstore, and Loblaws as well as several other brands like No Name and President’s Choice.
With restaurants unable to operate normally due to stay-at-home orders, more people were purchasing groceries to cook at home. This was reflected in Loblaw’s profit margins as well as Weston Jr.’s wealth, which increased rather dramatically. By June of 2020 Forbes recorded a $1.6 billion increase in Weston Jr.’s net worth – but what’s behind this sudden increase?
At the outset of the pandemic, frontline workers were at the center of the public conversation for their vital role in the day-to-day operation of our economy during this tumultuous period and were rewarded with a pay increase of $2 an hour. This acknowledgment would become nothing more than lip service, however, when the pay increase was rolled back only 2 months later. Weston Jr. cited the post-pandemic return to normalcy as the reason for clawing back this modest wage increase despite the fact many families were struggling from job loss and other financial troubles. This move is consistent with Weston Jr’s vocal opposition to the $15 minimum wage increase. He actively spoke out against the pay increase stating it would cost too much and have a destabilizing economic effect.
Weston Jr’s attitudes towards salary increases differ dramatically when applied to himself, however. His annual salary increased from $3.55 million in 2020 to $5.41 million in 2022; an increase of over 52%. The money was certainly there for wage increases, given that “(b)y the fourth quarter of 2021, Loblaws raked in $349 million more than the same period of 2020”.
Now Weston Jr. is blaming inflation for the latest increases in grocery prices despite first-quarter profit margins being 40% higher in 2022 than the year prior. Critics claim Weston Jr. is engaging in price fixing, something Loblaw Companies was already found guilty of in 2018 – the scheme persisted for 14 years, between 2001 and 2015. Also in 2018, Loblaw Companies was found guilty of using offshore bank accounts in the Caribbean to evade millions in taxes, a practice among billionaires and massive conglomerates that has become so commonly documented its borderline cliché. Loblaw Companies was ordered to pay $368 million in back taxes for 2018; a punishment that is ultimately a drop-in-thebucket considering their annual profits were $800 million the same year.
The company has responded to accusations of price fixing with a temporary price freeze for No Name products that began October 17th, 2022 and expired recently on January 30th of this year, a response that has left many unsatisfied. This prompted inquiries into how high prices were when they froze and unsurprisingly, they were “up over 10% annually from October to December” above pre-pandemic prices according to the Consumer Price Index. As negative media attention grows, the public is left to wonder will the retail magnate ever be held accountable?
Accountability for the Profiteers of Misery
In a system that emphasizes the pursuit of profits over the well-being of individuals, these outcomes are inevitable – and Galen Weston Jr. is no exception. He is among the ranks of a class of elites that obfuscate their wealth to hoard their money. The Westphalian nation-state model has enabled this conduct. With no supranational body to hold these profiteers accountable they can circumvent traditional accountability mechanisms that exist at the national level, allowing this elite class to operate with impunity globally.
This outcome is not an unintended consequence of our system, but rather an Intentional construct by status quo powers to maintain their wealth and influence over our world. This brief look into the Weston family’s exploits presents a stark reminder that the rules exist for most – but not for all.
We need a supranational body that can prevent this global-scale profiteering that siphons money from the lower class. And gives it to the wealthiest 1%. Only through global cohesion can we mitigate global inequality and ensure our resources are directed toward endeavours that supports the well-being of all global citizens.
In the popular TV series, Breaking Bad, which focuses on the transformative path of anti-hero Walter White towards the sale of drugs to pay for his cancer treatments, internet users would jokingly remark how the premise of the show becomes irrelevant if the main character simply lived in Canada - where treatment would be covered through universal health care. Similarly, series like Ozark about financial planner Marty Byrde, who is forced to help a cartel launder their money through international tax havens (not unlike those used by Loblaw Companies Ltd.), could also be rendered irrelevant if a supranational body with the ability to ensure those individuals who refuse to pay their fair share were held accountable. In the same way the divine right of kings was not a valid ordinance of power, inherited wealth does not make an individual deserving of outweighed influence and power over our world.
Our current system is naïve; it hopes that a company built on inherited wealth, worker exploitation, and consumer fraud will hold itself accountable – but this will never be the case. True accountability requires a system that prioritizes transparency and social well-being. Addressing global tax evasion is not only the right thing to do, but it could present an alternative revenue stream through which we could fund projects that could advance sustainability practices and enhance quality of life for humankind.