Saturday, April 21, 2012

On short-sightedness

Others have already drawn parallels between the Cons' plan to require Employment Insurance recipients to accept whatever low-paying temporary work might be available as a condition of receiving the benefits they've paid into, and other attacks on individual workers such as workfare and forced relocation. But let's take a closer look at what the mooted move will mean for individuals who have lost a job and are seeking to plan for the future:
The reforms would require unemployed Canadians to accept local jobs that are currently being filled by temporary foreign workers.
“Nova Scotia province-wide has 10% unemployment, but the only way Christmas tree operators can function in the Annapolis Valley is to bring in Mexicans through this agricultural worker program,” he said, also pointing to the increased number of Russians working in Prince Edward Island fish processing plants and Romanians working at the Ganong chocolate factory in New Brunswick.
“Even on the north shore of New Brunswick, which has the highest unemployment in the province, the MPs keep telling me the employers definitely need more temporary workers. What’s going on here?”
Now, the obvious answer would figure to be that workers have a strong personal interest in not getting trapped in a cycle of temporary jobs, especially when those jobs are unrelated to any field the worker could possibly want to pursue. And anybody who saw value in Canadians being able to plan for the future and consider the best possible career outcome in the longer term - including preparing to pursue work that isn't merely seasonal - would recognize that forcing people into whatever low-paying, menial labour might be available at a given moment is a move in exactly the wrong direction. Indeed, it would ensure that human capital is put to its lowest use rather than being developed for eventual growth.
 
In addition to setting the worker's new entitlement to EI at a lower baseline (and perhaps none at all - remember the Cons' restrictions on eligibility based on minimum numbers of weeks worked?), then, Kenney's plan is to make sure that anybody who loses a job through no fault of his or her own is also deprived of any opportunity to plan for the future. Which makes for a short-term gain for the employers eager to pay the lowest possible wage for menial work - but ultimately figures to result in just as much productivity loss for the broader economy as for the worker affected.

So is it any better for temporary foreign workers to perform the jobs? At worst, it would seem to make sense that individuals who actually want to accept the work might be a better fit than those who might otherwise be able to pursue better long-term options if their social safety net hadn't just been shredded beneath them.

But the more obvious systemic issue is that we shouldn't be biasing our labour system in favour of insecure temporary work in the first place. That is, unless one's long-term goal is to set up the largest possible gap between a privileged few and a powerless mass of workers with no capacity to organize or plan.

The Cons have apparently made their choice on that front. But the rest of us shouldn't accept a system that stunts the career prospects of Canadian citizens solely to cater to employers who see worker desperation as a plus. And indeed, we should take the cue to argue for just the opposite: individuals need enough income security to be able to make meaningful decisions, rather than being deployed solely at the whims of the most exploitative employer willing to ask for some wood to be hewed or some water drawn.

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