In 2008, in a disappearing act which would have impressed even the Great Houdini himself, the government of Canada waved its magic pen and vanished a $58 billion surplus in the Employment Insurance (EI) program. One minute it was accounted for, and the next it had disappeared within something called a “Consolidated Revenue Fund” which had nothing to do with funding EI.
In 2012, the government is once again performing spectacular magic tricks - putting forward a gigantic 425 page omnibus bill and acting as though it is a simple, efficient way of addressing important issues like labour shortages “for Canada and Canadians”. The huge bill is like the magicians hat from which an incredible amount of surprises appear, only the joke will be on us if we don't expose and oppose the bill and its attacks on poor and working people.
Smoke and Mirrors
The “Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act” actually contains 70 Bills, which target EI claimants and divide them into three separate categories depending on their claims history: “Long tenured workers”, “Frequent claimants”, and “Occasional claimants”. “Long tenured workers” have 18 weeks to find a job before being forced to accept a “similar” job at 80% of their previous wages. “Occasional claimants” can hold out for employment at 90% of their former salary in the same occupation for six weeks. After that, they will have to accept a job in a similar occupation at 80% salary for another 12 weeks. After 18 weeks, they will have to accept any job offered at 70% of their former salary. “Frequent claimants” must take a job offered at 80% of their former salary in a similar occupation in the first six weeks. After that, they must take any job offered at 70% of their former salary.
Sound confusing? It's supposed to be. The worst part is that Bill C-38 proposes giving minister the power to decide criteria for defining what constitutes “suitable employment” and what constitutes “reasonable efforts” to find a job.
When asked to define “suitable employment” and “reasonable efforts”, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has so far refused, saying, "We haven't announced those details yet. We want to make sure the legislation gets through first.” However, based on the statement of Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that, “There is no bad job, the only bad job is not having a job,” working people can expect to be forced to take a lesser and lesser paying jobs regardless of their education and experience or their seniority.
A big myth which is being promoted is that the main problem is an army of lazy Canadian workers who are taking advantage of the rest of us and abusing the EI system. This is fundamentally wrong. It is the Canadian government and employers who are taking huge advantage of workers, and are now trying to get us to work for even less wages.
Is it really “lazy” seasonal workers and the unemployed who are to blame when according to Statistics Canada there is a ratio of 6 unemployed to every job in Canada? The number more than doubles in parts of Atlantic Canada where the government is trying to blame seasonal workers for coasting on EI. According to their own statistics there are 15.4 unemployed workers in Newfoundland to every job! Basically means there are enough workers and they are demanding work, but government and capitalist class unable to offer work!
Workers are being forced into increasingly unstable, low paying part-time jobs. According to the Canadian Labour Congress, Canada has lost 500,000 well paying manufacturing jobs since 2003. The Mowat Center think-tank also reported that since 1976, the number of multiple jobholders has increased by 150% and the number of part-time jobholders has increased by 55 %.
The Mowatt Center concluded that, “Low income workers pay disproportionately for the [EI] program, yet many have little or no chance of collecting any benefits should they find themselves unemployed.” That is because only 40% of Canada's more than 1.4 million unemployed actually receive EI, even though we all pay into it while working.
The Pieces Fit Together
The changes to EI make more sense if you look at recent decisions by the Canadian Government and how they affect working people. Bill C-38 also raises the age to receive an Old Age and Security Pension from 65 to 67, which is no small matter for millions of aging workers. Also buried in Bill C-38 is the repeal of the “The Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act”, which ensures that workers on government construction jobs must be paid the prevalent wage in their province, and overtime. A contractor will now be allowed to bid for a job using minimum wages – forcing all other contractors to slash their wages as well.
The federal government has also intervened directly in strikes five times in the past year, most recently legislating CP rail workers back to work who were trying to protect their pensions from a company which posted profits of $570 million in the last year alone. This itself should put to rest any doubt that the government is working hand in hand with employers who do not feel obligated to ensure fair labour standards.
Divide and Rule
Bill C-38 also moves from another angle in its fight to push down wages. Changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Act will allow employers to pay higher skilled migrant workers 15% less than prevailing wage rates, and employers are also able to accelerate application for temporary foreign workers, reducing the time from the current 12 to 14 weeks to 10 days. In another shocking move, the government will also erase all Federal Skilled Worker (FSW) applications prior to February 2008, jeopardizing the lives of over 300,000 people.
There are more than 300,000 Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada, triple the number from a decade ago. They work everywhere. They pay into EI but do not receive it, have practically no right to apply for permanent residency or citizenship in Canada, and are taken advantage of in every area from pay, working conditions, living conditions, and overall rights. In 2010, government documents showed 74 per cent of Alberta businesses hiring temporary foreign workers that were subject to inspection had violated the labour code. These terrible conditions continue, and the government's new promises of beefed up inspection practices are unconvincing at best.
It is not a question of foreign workers taking “Canadian jobs”, but of government and employers taking advantage of desperate workers in other countries and using these programs to push down wages and working conditions for everybody. Foreign workers also become easy scapegoats for the government and employers, the ones who are actually responsible for driving wages down.
The Bottom Line is that the Bottom Line is Being Driven Down
Every change, from the new EI regulations to those regarding Temporary Foreign Workers, is part of an overall effort to force workers in Canada to settle for less and less and less. They are part of a huge vice being tightened down further and further as the Canadian government and employers try to force the losses from their Economic Crisis onto our backs. The message is, ‘we will either force you to accept this misery, or we'll find someone who will.’
All statistics aside, if the government is forecasting huge labour shortages, why not improve access to EI and improve the system with training programs to meet those needs? That $58 billion which they disappeared would have likely been able to cover all of it. If the government says they are short on money, why did they cut corporate taxes to 15% from the 28% they were a decade ago?
The twisted magic show of the government of Canada continues as they are trying to put our rights and livelihoods into a wooden box and saw them apart. Only this is real life and they have no plan of putting them back together at the end. Québec students have given us a clear reminder of how to mobilize and effectively defend our rights, and all poor and working people, regardless of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or work need to be united in opposing Bill C-38 and all attacks on poor and working people.
Scrap Bill C-38!
An Injury to One is an Injury to All!
Education not Austerity!
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