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.
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 email@example.com.
Her column returns June 2.