Employment Insurance Reforms Are Inevitable But the Methods Are Not

By Peter Lindfield, published in the Telegraph-Journal 15th June 2012

The federal government recently announced sweeping changes to Employment Insurance (EI) that will have dislocating effects for many workers across Canada. In the Maritime Provinces, workers in industries that have seasonal characteristics will be particularly hard hit as the government’s new rules attempt to reduce their reliance on EI during what can be months of unemployment. The new rules place more stringent conditions on workers with three or more EI claims in the past five years, or who have collected EI for more than 60 weeks in the past five years.

Seasonal workers in industries such as fisheries, forestry or tourism would be considered frequent claimants and would be required to accept work for which they are qualified after collecting EI for seven weeks. If required, training would be provided to allow workers to learn new skills. Long-tenured workers and occasional claimants who collect EI less frequently would be given more latitude to find employment.

These new EI rules have been met with derision by opposition political parties, but some business groups welcome the changes. “These new rules should help push people off of a pogey lifestyle and into steadier jobs,” said Gregory Thomas, national director at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Some critics of the government’s changes to EI have complained that a significant number of seasonal workers will be required to travel substantial distances to find year-around work. Other criticisms stem from observations that many workers will be forced to accept employment far removed from their chosen vocations.

Federal government officials deny both charges. “These changes are not about forcing people to accept work outside their own area, or taking jobs for which they are not suited,” said Human Resources Minister Diane Finley at news conference.

There is no denying that Canada’s social programs require an overhaul. The responsibility of government is to find that balance between fiscal stability and social conscience. With the global economy and the harbingers of fiscal and demographic constraints becoming more apparent, there is no guarantee that this twin trajectory can be maintained. At the same time, the gap between haves and have-nots is increasing. It is not a recipe for political, economic or social success: increasingly, this gap is a source of real social discontent.

There may be a better way to address the intersection of social and economic issues. The graduated way in which government introduced recent reforms to the Old Age Security (OAS) is a stellar example. Rather than instituting massive changes in one sweeping move, government has chosen to grandfather today’s recipients into the current plan for an extended period. A similar approach to EI reform could be made to pay large dividends. An orderly and measured transition from flagging industries and moribund locations to more productive ones could be made over the period of years rather than months. A precedent embalms a principle, observed Benjamin Disraeli.

More troubling is the overtly moral tone that has emerged when discussing the recipients of Canada’s social programs. One of the hallmarks of this moralism is the exasperation with what some consider the piousness of the soft-hearted left who are also considered enemies of the work ethic. This reactionary perspective is neither founded in fact nor helpful.

In fact, the consequence of this animus of work ethic moralism represents a danger to the larger project of comprehensive human decency. The current capitalist paradigm vastly underrates the value of economic equality and social stability. For most of the more than two hundred years since the Industrial Revolution, this has been inconsequential, as relentless technological advancement has tended to compensate for short-sighted policies. But economic globalization has re-written the rules in a profound way.

As with the changes to the Old Age Security program, Canadians should view reform of Employment Insurance as part of the blueprint for the Canadian identity. We will achieve greater success if we consider political, social and economic reforms not as a political mandate checklist, but a long-term journey.

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Filed under Government transformation, Income Inequality, Social contract, Social policy

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