The Conservatives and the junk labour market

Lana Payne
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There is no such thing as a “bad job,” Jim Flaherty, Canada’s finance minister, told us last week.

It was a stunning and glib pronouncement, made to shame the unemployed, the 40 per cent of them who manage to qualify for employment insurance (EI).

It backfired. Badly. Consider many of the nearly 2,000 comments following a story about this in The Globe and Mail. Most were outraged reflections on the government’s plans.

On the same day that Flaherty preached from his comfortable Parliamentary perch, Nga Trieu, the widow of a mushroom farm worker was testifying at a coroner’s inquest in Langley, B.C., begging for safety improvements for workers.

Her husband, Han Pham, was one of three workers who died at the farm in 2008 when hydrogen sulfide gas was released from a pipe at a farm pump house.

The widow told the inquiry that a lot of Vietnamese workers do not speak English and cannot find work. “They have to work at mushroom farms and whatever treatment they get from the boss, they have to suffer.”

"Today I'm not here for my benefit, I'm here to help the people who are still working," said Nga Trieu through an interpreter. The widow of Ut Tran, another worker killed, said, “Every time I think about the accident, I cannot breathe.”

Pham, Tran, and Jimmy Chan died from the gas release, while Michael Phan and Thang Tchen, two other workers, were left severely brain damaged.

Yes Mr. Flaherty, there is such a thing as a bad job. You can hear more about them from twitter:

#flahertyjobs or #Jimjobs.

The government’s plans for employment insurance are related to its disparaging view of the unemployed.

We have repeatedly heard government representatives, including Diane Finlay, the minister responsible for EI, refer to unemployed workers in an unflattering and derogatory light.

Plans also cater to those low-wage employers that Catherine Swift of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) says she represents. Tighter labour market conditions, in some parts and regions of the country, should result in an upward pressure on wages. But creating a desperate pool of unemployed workers will no doubt have a reverse impact.

Quite a short-sighted labour market strategy. Instead of making jobs better and encouraging employers to do so, the solution according to the Harper Conservatives is to make workers desperate.

Desperate workers are easily exploited. They don’t demand better. They can’t.

Vulnerable workers

Like the changes to Old Age Security, the proposed new rules for employment insurance will hurt vulnerable workers the most.

The minister responsible for employment insurance will be given new powers to bring in regulations that: take into account local labour market conditions, an individual’s past history with the EI program, define suitable employment for different categories of workers; and determine reasonable and customary efforts to find a job.

Sounds benign. It won’t be. The devil, as they say, will be in the details or rather new regulations being crafted behind closed doors and which will not have to come to Parliament for debate.

Unemployed workers who don’t meet the new test or take jobs (no matter the location or working conditions) will be subjected to discipline, likely cut off benefits or have benefits reduced. The fact the government is looking at a person’s “past history” with EI means that workers in seasonal industries will likely be subjected to some kind of “special” discipline from the Harper Conservatives.

Currently unemployed workers can turn down “not suitable” work if it is not in their field, pays less or does not offer good working conditions. Those conditions have been eliminated in the omnibus budget bill that includes the EI changes.

What Mr. Flaherty failed to point out is the changes to employment insurance, coupled with new rules for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) that will allow employers to pay workers (in the same occupation) 15 per cent less than prevailing wage rates, will have profound and negative impacts on Canada’s labour market, including the suppression of wages.

They will pit worker against worker. They will suppress wages.

As my colleague in Alberta, Gil McGowan, president of that province’s federation of labour, has said, the TFWP is not immigration. “It’s an exploitative guest worker program that flies in the face of Canadian values and traditions.”

In addition to allowing employers to pay temporary foreign workers less, the new Harper rules will fast track applications from employers. A letter to government by many organizations has outlined concerns that the new rules will create a permanent underclass of temporary workers who enjoy fewer rights than their Canadian counterparts and most of whom will be denied a path to citizenship.

The message to many Canadian workers is also clear: don’t demand more or you will be replaced by temporary foreign workers who will be more easily brought to Canada under the fast-tracked, 10-day, application-approved rules.

Good enough to work here. Pour our coffee. Build our homes. Work on major oil projects in northern Alberta, but not good enough to become a citizen.

In both cases, the changes to EI and the TFWP, the federal government is catering to a low-wage economy.

It’s junk labour market policy and we should all be extremely worried about this government’s willingness to embrace Dickensian working conditions and a race to the bottom.

Lana Payne is president of the

Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at

Her column returns June 2.

Organizations: Conservatives, Globe and Mail, Canadian Federation of Independent Business Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Canada, Langley, Alberta Northern Alberta

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Recent comments

  • Aunt Lizzie
    May 23, 2012 - 15:46

    Why does the Telegram not disclose Ms. Payne's partisan affiliation when it publishes her partisan polemics? She is an active NDP member, and when she criticizes another party her bias should be revealed to readers.

  • Carl
    May 23, 2012 - 15:42

    I agree that there are bad jobs. I have had to work a few bad jobs myself. But I always considered those jobs to be far better than being unemployed. And I don't expect anyone else to have to pay me if I choose not to take a job that is offered.

  • Lane
    May 23, 2012 - 15:41

    Ms. Payne is a typical unionist - She apparently does not care about the lower and middle class workers who pay the majority of the EI premiums in this country. She thinks those workers should be forced to pay to support people who choose not to work because the jobs that are available are too unpleasant. What a twisted, unfair attitude.

  • response to Kathleen Darby
    May 23, 2012 - 09:01

    Kathleen, we all pay for EI so that it is there when we need it, but the seasonal workers "need" it every year. They take more from the system then the put it and it is just not fair. I work hard for my money and would rather keep it for myself. It does not matter how much there is to fund EI, the reality is that because there is enough EI to fund the yearly abuse, employees and employers who pay into EI are clearly paying too much. If the EI system did not have to pay the seasonal workers, then employers and employees can pay lessi. Unlike you, I DO mind that seasonal workers getting EI year after year, and I really don't care about stabilizing their economies. I do wish that these workers have a stabilized economy, but I do not want to pay for their stabilized economy. I would rather see it fail before I sink my money into it. I understand that the changes to EI will bring on suffering, but I happily accept that if it means that I get to keep more of the money that I get up to earn every morning. I happily welcome the change to EI, even if it saves me a paltry sum of $50, I would accept the EI changes to save any amount of the money I earn. I can bet that money at the casino, donate to the charity of my choosing, or give it to my family. AND even if there is not a reduction in the EI premiums that I pay, I will at least feel better that seasonal workers can not longer abuse the system. As far as I am concerned, one should only be able to quality for EI once every three or four years, and repeat users should be penalized both in the amount the get and the amount they pay in, when they actually pay in. The last think I will say is that the system has been broken for a long time, since seasonal abuse has been around from years. As an employer, I purposely close factories and offices in NL specifically to take money out of the tax system. When removing jobs, I take away people's income and I don't pay taxes anymore. Then the workers cannot spend and this affects others. As the effects ripple, the government get less and less money and have to make cuts. I do this because I want reduce the ability of government to fund such abuses of tax dollars, with the view that the reduced revenue will force government to make the changes necessary. And if I am wrong, at least I have taken my jobs our of the community and thus, atleast less my tax dollars are contributing to the EI abuse. Frankly, I would rather pay taxes to governments in India/China/USA instead of paying them here and supporting seasonal workers that abuse the system. That said, I look forward to any amount of money, even a few dollars, that the changes to EI might allow me to save.

  • Mary
    May 22, 2012 - 07:09

    I believe the businessman,is a big bluff, real business people don't rant on like that,I think he would LOVE to be,what he's saying he is, he/she is a dreamer,a Donald Trump wannabe,and no educated person,is going to put people down like that if they have any SELF respect.

    • a business man
      May 23, 2012 - 11:48

      I am absolutely a Donald Trump wanna be. He is my inspiration. But I have no where near his level of wealth - yet. I put people down who I do not respect down. I do not respect people who do a menial job for a living. I do not respect people who do not respect themselves enough to get an education and make a living. I do not respect the unskilled uneducated worker who believes that he/she should be a part of the middle class. I do not respect people who protect jobs that I do not want for my children, like fishery jobs. Lastly, I do not respect people who live off my tax dollars while taking more from the taxpayers than they put in to the tax system. Seriously, how can one respect themselves if they do a dirty sweaty job for their whole life? How do you explain to your child that you are not more important to society (like a doctor, or a lawyer or a business man)? For the life of me, I cannot understand the lack of ambition that seems to plague NL. That is why I left and took as much of my assets as possible with me. For my businesses that remain in NL, I am just collecting the profit cheques and will do so until it time to shut the business down.

    • Ava
      May 23, 2012 - 17:33

      I have more respect for someone doing a "dirty sweaty job for their whole life" than I do for anyone who thinks it's okay to exploit others. Where would we be without the people doing those "dirty sweaty" jobs? I don't know how much money (or not) you have "A Business Man," but one thing is for darn sure, and that is that money and morals don't always go hand in hand.

  • Edward Power
    May 21, 2012 - 19:28

    I would suggest that if Mister "Business Man" is looking for a local Tea Party chapter he will be sorely disappointed. Our Tea Parties serve real tea, not the tired old Randian Conservative political slop of which he seems so fond. He is, however, quite welcome to throw himself in the Harbour. Unfortunately, for him at least, there won't be any government subsidized rescue service available to pluck him out. Everyman for himself, don't you know.

  • Harold
    May 21, 2012 - 14:49

    a business man ... are you for real?? seems you should set up shop in places like China. low wages. no health benefits. poor working conditions. no environmental regulations. to hell with the sick, the poor and anyone else down on their luck. dog eat dog and may the best dog live. you suggest get rid of the fishery, seasonal workers and EI. you may as well say it man, " move everyone to Fort McMurrry" but where will that leave your business??? ohhh, you support Steven Harper, he'll help you out. and by the way Harper does not have a clear mandate. only 58% of the eligible voters actually voted. only @ 38% of those voted for Harper which means only about 24% of the eligible Canadian voters voted for the present government.. i wonder, did voter surpression have anything to do with low voter turnout? all fingers point to your "Government" as being a possible Fraud. i would love to know what kind of business your into. it seems your parents didn't teach you anything about helping others and teach you that "what goes around, comes around". i guess your also in favor of private health care. are you in favor of private only education? do you agree with government run nursing homes? are you in agreement with 10 year olds being locked up in adult jails? do you agree with women having the right to vote? do you agree with govt run food inspection? what about clean water to drink? business man.. people like you make me sick but i'll have to get used to your type cos your leader is in power and he thinks like you. scary.

  • response from a business man to BoredOnTheCorner
    May 21, 2012 - 12:25

    BoredOnTheCorner said Oh and without the working class that you're eager to destroy, YOU'D HAVE NO CUSTOMERS. Who's the real idiot here?" ACTUALLY BoredOnTheCorner, I see my products and services all over the world. I don't need Canadian customers or NL customers....I really don't care who buys my product and services, as long as someone does. Furthermore, one of businesses is Outsourcing/Offshoring Consulting (BPO - Business Processing Outsourcing) someone with a JD/MBA, I created this company to help other companies identify areas of their business that they can outsource/offshore and increase their profits. So in this role, my sole purpose is to give companies the legal and business support to move parts of their company out of Canada and into cheaper jurisdictions. I charge hundreds of dollars an hour for this service. Lastly, my economic view is as follows: I believe that the middle class of Canada is important, very important. However, no everyone can be part of the middle class, and it is MY OPINION that unskilled uneducated workers do not belong in the middle class. The middle class is limited, and because nowdays everyone and their cousin has a university degree, just having a college degree or a high school degree is not enough nor should be enough to attain a middle class lifestyle. Putting in a hard days work is no longer enough for one to earn a middle class lifestyle. I know that, and business owners know that. and that is why I actually got into outsourcing/offshoring consulting...because knew I would be able to see companies on the idea that the work that they pay unskilled uneducated Canadians to do could and should be done by workers in foreign countries for a fraction of the cost. I knew I would be able to see companies on the idea that there is nothing that an unskilled uneducated Canadian brings to the table that a worker in a foreign country cannot bring to the table too, for a fraction of the cost. I got really good at this, so I started opening offices and factories in right to work states and countries like India, China, and others, so that I could tell these companies that I have offices and workers ready to do the work of the unskilled and uneducated Canadians. Honestly, I own gas stations, fast food franchises, call centers, my law firm, but nothing has made me more money than the BPO business. Companies and shareholders are demanding more profits, and my outsourcing/offshoring operations help them reach their goals. That said, the key, skilled educated employees are the most vital to my company.....the engineers that built the technology to make the offshoring of jobs possible, the accountants that track every penny of my revenues, the client service professionals that network with executives to identify companies with jobs that could be moved, the IT guys that manage our computers....these are the important people...these are the jobs of the future that we should want for our children...these workers, I happily pay 6 figure salaries to, because I certainly can afford to but more importantly, because I know that I need them. I cannot say the same about the unskilled uneducated worker. They are easily replaceable, so why pay more than minimum wage when you can just hire someone else? why pay a Canadian when an Indian or Asian or even american will do it for half the price. So to answer your question directly, I am not trying to destroy the working class, but rather am doing MY part to shape the working class in the way I THINK it should be. I don't believe unskilled uneducated workers should be part of the middle class, and I get paid to help companies move these kind of jobs out of the country. And as I do that, the people who get these jobs can then afford to buy my other products or services. As I said above, I really don't care WHO my customers are, as long as I have customers. I am sure you will disagree, but at the end of the day, everything I do is legal, and I will continue to do it.

  • Mary
    May 21, 2012 - 10:55

    Boredonthecorner,you're so right, without the lowly working class,where's he going to get his customers? He/she must not have thought about that. There's a saying," make sure brain is engaged,before putting mouth in gear".

    • a business man
      May 23, 2012 - 10:19

      I have thought about it. I have customers all around the world. I sell more product in China/India in 1 month than I sell in 1 year in Canada. I make lots of money without having a single customer in Canada. I do not need Canadian customers or Canadian employees.

  • Gary Schoenfeldt
    May 21, 2012 - 10:09

    I am so happy that Mr. "A Business Man" has chosen to let us know what he thinks. Mr. Man would happily cheer the wrecking of the economy and the destruction of the environment just so he could have a ready supply of desperate workers to exploit for his own selfish ends. This is the kind of "entrepreneurial" philosophy behind slave labour.

  • Petertwo
    May 21, 2012 - 06:04

    Business man are you sure you are in the right country? You read like third world and seem to have no respect for your fellow Canadians. Minimum wage ought to be higher since the recent round of price increases, especially in food. Fishermen and related "workers" are not uneducated, they are skilled in what they do. Because some people have a different type of education to academia does not mean they are unworthy of having a decent life. They are educated in their own way, particularly with the likes of you and other people abusers. I suggest you move to a country where you can grub for money to your hearts content, you obviously do not like being in Canada.

    • a business man
      May 23, 2012 - 11:57


  • Kathleen Darby
    May 20, 2012 - 18:35

    Why is there going to be a change like this? Don't we all pay into EI for it to be there when we need it, if we need it? I thought there was plenty enough in that fund to support the EI claims in Canada. I don't mind seasonal workers getting the EI I pay into at all, that stabilizes their economies and makes it possible for many seasonal businesses to survive. Not sure that a day goes by where the current government hasn't properly thought things through, nor considered the true impact of their policies. Will I get some paltry sum like $50 a year less on my taxes because of this and at the same time take food from the mouths of the children of seasonal workers. Lost, we are lost.

  • Larry Mutter
    May 20, 2012 - 11:36

    Sounds like Marx was right after all.

  • a business man
    May 20, 2012 - 09:45

    I disagree Todd. I am happy with the job Harper has done, and so are the majority of voters. After 2 minority governments, Harper was a clear mandate and now has the power to make the changes like the EI and TFWP changes. I support the EI changes because I don't want my tax dollars to pay for the yearly EI seasonal workers. I support the TFWP changes because I believe the current minimum wage is too high for unskilled uneducated workers. I voted for Harper, I went door knocking for Harper, I donated money, thousands of dollars, to various Conservative candidates, and I am very happy with the job Harper has done. One think I really want from all of this is an end to the yearly EI that is seen in NL. I want this abuse of EI by seasonal workers to stop, by any means necessary. I support the changes that Harper is making. I would also support the death of the fishery, because then the workers will not be able to get the hours needed to qualify for (abuse) EI, and therefore my tax dollars will not be used for this. Either way, it is a win for me.

    • BoredOnTheCorner
      May 20, 2012 - 16:48

      What are you talking about, Business Man? More Canadians than ever HATE Stephen Harper, and this "let them eat cake" attitude is only the newest reason why. The guy burned an inherited surplus and drowned us in debt and deficit for stupid reasons (like F-35s that he tried to defraud us on, a tough-on-crime program that is neither necessary nor effective), DIDN'T SEE THE RECESSION COMING, and oh by the way, STOLE THE ELECTION THAT BROUGHT THEM A MAJORITY. Oh and without the working class that you're eager to destroy, YOU'D HAVE NO CUSTOMERS. Who's the real idiot here?

    • todd
      May 21, 2012 - 09:26

      yeah you are also the person in the other thread who wants to hire all slave chinese workers at 7 dollars or have no morals. not everyone abuses ei. Stop being so self-absorbed and think of others. You are ruining our world.

    • response from a business man
      May 21, 2012 - 13:42

      yeah, perhaps more Canadians than every hate Harper, but that does not change the fact that a majority of voters voted for Harper and the majority of citizens are happy with Harper. You say that More Canadians than ever HATE Stephen Harper.....well if the Harper haters do not represent the majority of voters, then who really cares what they think. I sure don't. This is a democracy. the people have spoken, and given Harper the majority that is needed to implement changes that will kill EI for seasonal workers and allow employers like myself access to cheaper workers. And the best part is that, for me as a business man, if Harper doesn't do it, someone else will, like China, India, or the USA right to work states. I really don't care where I get cheaper workers from, as long as I get cheaper workers. So, thank you Prime Minister Harper, you have made this country a better place for the majority of the electorate. Every one cannot be happy or have their needs fulfilled, but when the government serves the majority effectively, it is doing its job. Thus, Harper is a success and I look forward for the EI overhaul, the TFWP, and what ever plans Harper has in store for the rest of his term. I am not sure what he is doing, but I trust him to do the right thing. To date, he has and I am confident he will continue to do so.

    • Eli
      May 21, 2012 - 17:07

      A win for you.....Perhaps the tax you save will fund some more wild jaunts by Peter MacKay. You're out to lunch man, or else you're waiting for the "what's in this for me" syndrome.

    • response to ELI from a business man
      May 23, 2012 - 10:48

      ELI - every single thing I do is about "what's in it for me". I do not invest in communities to create jobs for the locals, I invest to make money. I do not relocate companies simply to spite the workers, I do it to pay the new workers less and make more money. I do not undercut companies in order to deliver cheaper services.....I do it to steal clients, put the competition out of business and make more money. Every decision is about me, and if everyone would think for themselves, the interests of the majority would be better served.

  • todd
    May 19, 2012 - 12:26

    We need to get rid of steven harper! he is going to completely destroy canada for the poor and the well-off!