Saturday, 26 May 2012

EI Changes: Conservative Morality Play

I've been fortunate enough never to have joined Team Canada (receive EI benefits), but I had no problem making EI contributions while I was working.  I could see it coming back all over the rural community I live in. People who work in PEI's many seasonal industries get money that's spent and re-spent locally, and provincially ( the old multiplier affect at play). Are there people who "work" the system? Of course. Do wealthy people hire high-priced tax lawyers to shelter their income and pay less tax? Yup.  Does EI steal a bit of people's ambition, maybe their soul? Yes again. The alternative is much worse.

Besides people who live very modest lives, the Harper Government is insulting the work they do. If Toronto fat cats are to enjoy oysters at their favourite bar in Toronto, someone has to go out and work rakes to harvest them out of the mud, something that can't be done for several months in the winter..  If these fat cats had to pay enough so that the oyster harvesters could feed their families for a year, they'd have to pay a lot more.  The pattern is repeated in fish plants, potato packing operations, and tourist operations. This is work that the Toronto fat cats wouldn't consider doing, but it's work that has value just the same.

There have been some thoughtful news reports on this that expose the shear lack of understanding of how many seasonal industries work in rural areas. Farmer Charles Keddy has a lot of stooped labour on his  fruit and vegetable farm in Lakeville, Nova Scotia. He has five full-time workers, hires 20 seasonal workers, and as many as 60 foreign workers during the peak harvest. Here's the dilemma. If the experienced seasonal workers who now can collect EI are forced to take another job in the off-season they'll either have to quit that second job (leaving another employer unhappy) in order to return to the Keddy farm, or Keddy will have to constantly retrain new workers, or he'll have to bring in more foreign workers. “They will not be available for work when we need them, which will make more of a void and require us to hire more foreign workers,” he said. This pattern of constantly losing experienced workers will be repeated in many of the region's seasonal industries.

The other word that comes up in this morality tale  is entitlement. I come from a privileged and very LUCKY generation, born just after the second world war,  enjoyed relatively cheap higher education, had lots of jobs to chose from when I graduated in 1971. When I look at the age and class of the people who make up the Harper cabinet, or comment on the EI changes in the National Post, or Globe and Mail, I know that we're the ones who've got it all wrong, who are trying to justify the opportunities and rewards we've enjoyed over the years by implying that it's only because of intelligence and hard work.  Yes there's some of that, but there's a whole lot of chance involved too (like being in Alberta on top of oil and gas deposits). To feel that we're entitled to what we have and that others who don't have it is because they're lazy  is bullshit.

Of course the EI system needs reform. I don't think high-school age kids should get a claim if they work on a fishing boat. I've seen too many living at home, using the EI claim to buy a car, and wonder what happened with their lives at thirty-five. The different periods to qualify and claim should be based on jobs available that aren't being filled, not the unemployment rate. People should be encouraged not punished if they want to go back to school while being unemployed. Maybe we should think about a "guaranteed annual income" and do away with the byzantine rules and regulations in place now.  (there's excellent research on the Dauphin,  Manitoba experiment with a guaranteed annual income in the 1970's).

So here's what we're looking at: employers who need seasonal workers say they'll be worse off. Seasonal workers will now be expected to have a computer to get the daily job info messages, and a car to commute within an hour of home to take whatever job there might be. That's going to make things a lot better isn't it.

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