Chantier Politique

March 21, 2018

English Edition, No. 4

Uphold the Demands of Seasonal
Workers to Live in Dignity!

Uphold the Demands of Seasonal Workers to Live in Dignity!
- Pierre Chénier -
Workers Beware of Liberal Hypocrisy!
Interview, Line Sirois, Coordinator, Action Chômage, Quebec Côte-Nord


Uphold the Demands of Seasonal
Workers to Live in Dignity!


Protest in Cap-aux-Meules, Quebec, February 12, 2018 demands end to EI "black hole."

A few weeks before the presentation of the federal budget on February 27, the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, Jean-Yves Duclos, and senior officials of his ministry promised the unemployed that the budget would include announcements on the issue of employment insurance (EI) and, in particular, the "black hole." The "black hole" is the period of time when unemployed workers, especially seasonal workers, have no income; when their EI benefits have been exhausted under the existing rules but their regular jobs have not yet restarted.[1] The federal government's budget includes an announcement on the issue of seasonal industries and the black hole, but the content and form it takes is the opposite of what workers are asking for so that the unemployed can live in dignity.


Protest at Forestville Service Canada office.

First, the federal government rejects the demand of the unemployed, their defence associations and the unions that support them for urgent measures. They demand immediate steps to deal with the arbitrariness of the EI regime, which has made the situation untenable. Regarding the black hole, the defence associations in eastern Quebec have put forward a threshold of 420 hours of work to qualify for 30 weeks of EI benefits, retroactive to the period when the official and arbitrary unemployment rate suddenly fell in their region. The measures they propose would prevent seasonal workers from having to go for months without any income.

Instead of straightforwardly meeting the demands of the unemployed and their supporters, the section of the budget entitled "Helping Workers in Seasonal Industries" states:

For most Canadians losing a job is a temporary, one-time occurrence. The length of time it takes to find a new job will depend on the circumstances of each individual and the local job market they face at a particular point in time. This is why EI provides benefits that vary depending on the regional unemployment rate.

However, a number of Canadians also work in jobs like tourism and fish processing which fluctuates by season. Because EI benefits vary from year to year in each region, this dynamic can cause disruption for workers whose main jobs are seasonal. For those who are not able to find alternative employment until the new season begins, this can represent a challenging and stressful loss of income, especially if EI benefits vary significantly from year to year.

This self-serving description of the problem distorts the reality and does not solve anything. The federal government begins from the status quo of unemployment as a given rather than considering it a serious problem that needs a solution and a social program until the problem is resolved. Unemployment is endemic to the present system and the ruling elite refuse to envisage any other direction to the economy. Their outlook does not begin from what is best for the human factor but from what serves making maximum money profit for a few, which requires a constant surplus population of working people available on a labour market.

The current system does not begin from the needs of the human factor or have that as its aim. It can never provide employment for all because that is not a consideration of the aim, which is to expropriate maximum money profit from what workers produce. This means a social program is necessary that guarantees the right of the unemployed to live at a Canadian standard. But no, the government says the loss of employment is a one-time experience for "each individual" that involves "the local job market." By sleight of hand, the government denies the reality of endemic unemployment and imposes an arbitrary arithmetic formula based on an imaginary regional rate of unemployment that "evens out" an entire region. All this blather has nothing to do with the actual situation workers face and in particular the black hole, which causes the unemployed serious hardship.

Of course, the government does not feel compelled to explain why "a number of Canadians also work in jobs like tourism and fish processing which fluctuates by season." As a mere description of the situation, and a very poor one at that, the government avoids explaining what happened to the manufacturing sector in these regions and why successive governments have refused to lead in developing an all-sided economy that serves the needs of the people and does not suffer the uncertainties and insecurity of employment "which fluctuates by season." These regions have essentially become repositories of raw materials available to global private interests when needed for refinement and manufacturing elsewhere. The raw material in the regions could be developed as the foundation of an all-sided economy if the working people were in control with a new human-centred aim instead of being left to the self-serving plans of the supranational private interests, which leave the regions underdeveloped and workers subjected to "fluctuating" employment made worse with an inadequate and arbitrary EI regime.


Protest at Service Canada offices in Richibucto, New Brunswick on February 21, 2018, to oppose federal government EI changes and demand an end to the "black hole."

Note

1. Approximately 16,000 workers in Canada are estimated to face the "black hole" or are likely to face it within the year. Thirty-six per cent of those workers live in Quebec and twenty-eight per cent in the Atlantic Provinces. The black hole is becoming worse because the EI regime divides the country arbitrarily into economic regions. Those EI regions are a mix of very different industries and economies. The EI regime allocates each region with an unemployment rate, which plays a big role in determining EI eligibility. This determination is arbitrary because it does not reflect the real situation of the unemployed and the regional economy. For example, the unemployment rate in the EI determined Lower St. Lawrence - Côte-Nord region even includes part of Lac-Saint-Jean, which is not even geographically linked. The unemployment rate for the EI region officially dropped to 6.9 per cent in November compared with 8.9 per cent last May. Consequently, the qualifying threshold for employment insurance rose in this EI region from 595 hours worked for 18 weeks of benefits, which is already unacceptable, to 665 hours worked for 15 weeks of benefits. Through sleight of hand using a statistic that does not reflect the actual conditions, many workers in areas of the vast region are excluded from employment insurance and left without income in the EI black hole for as long as 3 to 4 months.

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Workers Beware of Liberal Hypocrisy!

The Trudeau federal budget includes two measures touching on EI with regard to seasonal workers.[1] Budget 2018 reads:

1. "To test new approaches to better assist workers most affected by these circumstances [unemployment and the black hole -- CP note], Budget 2018 proposes to invest $80 million in 2018-19 and $150 million in 2019-20 through federal-provincial Labour Market Development Agreements. In the coming months, the Government will work with key provinces to co-develop local solutions that can be tested to support workforce development.

2. "In addition, Employment and Social Development Canada will reallocate $10 million from existing departmental resources to provide immediate income support and training to affected workers. These measures will help ensure that unemployed workers in Canada's seasonal industries have access to the supports they need when they need them most."

Point one has absolutely nothing to do with the demand of the unemployed for measures to alleviate their situation of deep and increasing poverty or to take corrective measures based on the concrete conditions and the real needs of the unemployed. The Federal-Provincial Labour Market Development Agreements involve amounts allocated to the provinces, Quebec and the territories by the federal government to provide training, assistance in finding employment, wage subsidy programs to employers who hire the unemployed, and other such measures. The clientele for these measures is essentially the claimants and beneficiaries of EI.

The federal government links training and other programs to workers who are laid off because their work is seasonal. Workers in regions where seasonal work predominates are already trained for their jobs. They have the required schooling when schooling is needed and the rest they learn working in their trade. Training does not provide employment in the regions where seasonal work predominates. If year round work were available, then why would workers work in uncertain seasonal jobs that leave them trapped in the black hole? If year round secure work were available who would be available for the seasonal work unless broad cooperation existed and workers were made available to do seasonal work. But that is not how this economy functions, which is based on competition and expropriating the maximum money profit from what workers produce. Companies, seasonal or not, buy workers' capacity to work from working people available on the labour market. For workers to be bought (or hired), a demand for their capacity to work must exist.

Workers Must Be Vigilant


Demonstration in Tadoussac on March 16, 2018
(photo: CSN-Côte-Nord)

Will participation in training programs be made a condition for access to Employment Insurance benefits for seasonal workers? Will the seasonal workers be "deemed" to have a job once they get "trained," leading to their benefits being cut off or reduced as is done in the case of injured workers in Ontario when they are "deemed" to have a job which is a phantom job? Will the unemployed in remote areas be forced to travel long distances to take training programs because training centres do not exist in their region?

Workers have to be very vigilant because for several years now imperialist "think tanks" that are closely tied to the Liberals, such as the C.D. Howe Institute, have been proposing that the federal government divest itself of its responsibilities with respect to the unemployed who are considered "captives." "Captive" refers to the unemployed who do not participate in labour mobility. According to the C.D. Howe Institute and others, the EI program should promote work mobility and be available only to those who move around in the "labour market" and take jobs far from their region and hometown.

The C.D. Howe Institute proposes downloading responsibility for the "captives" to Quebec and the provinces, which it considers better able to deal with the issue of seasonal unemployment because it allegedly resembles that of social assistance, which is provincial and the "captives" are in fact "dependent on the state" and not really part of the free labour market.

The Liberal government's outlook and measures do not respond to the demands or needs of the unemployed because that is not its aim. Could anyone imagine a Liberal government proposing to abolish the labour market and throw it in the museum of anti-people history along with the slave market? The only social program workers can expect is one that they fight for and demand and make clear their expectation of nothing less than their right to a Canadian standard livelihood at all times.

With regard to the second category, the "$10 million from existing departmental resources to provide immediate income support and training to affected workers," no one knows at the moment how these amounts will be disbursed and what will be the relationship between these income support amounts and the training programs. The defence organizations of the unemployed have already said that an amount of $10 million is totally insufficient and does not address their demands for immediate emergency measures and corrective measures so that unemployed workers can live in dignity. It sounds more like pathetic robbing of Peter to pay Paul, done for show, than anything substantive to resolve the situation.


Demonstration in Rimouski on March 16, 2018 (photo: L'Avantage)

The refusal of the federal government to deal with this problem of the black hole and generally with unemployment is contemptible. Workers and their organizations demand immediate measures of emergency relief and corrective action based on the concrete reality and needs of the unemployed. The state and others who buy workers' capacity to work hold the social responsibility to ensure a dignified existence for all at a Canadian standard. Any refusal to uphold their social responsibility proves that they are unfit to rule.

Note

1. With regard to EI, Budget 2018 also proposes to introduce amendments to the Employment Insurance Act to make the rules of the current EI "Working While on Claim" pilot project permanent. The pilot project, which was scheduled to expire in August 2018, allows claimants to keep 50 cents of their EI benefits for every dollar they earn, up to a maximum of 90 per cent of the weekly insurable earnings used to calculate their EI benefit amount.

Budget 2018 proposes a new EI Parental Sharing Benefit that provides an additional five weeks of EI parental leave benefits when both parents agree to share parental leave. The budget proposes as well to make available up to $90 million over three years, starting in 2018-19, for EI claims processing and service delivery. It also proposes to provide an additional $127.7 million over three years, starting in 2018-19, for Employment Insurance call centre accessibility "to ensure Canadians receive timely and accurate information and assistance with EI benefits." It has been a stand of the Liberals since they were elected that a main problem with the EI regime is the slow and cumbersome processing of claims, not the arbitrariness of the whole regime. That is what they said for months to the unemployed workers demanding relief for the black hole, before they came up with the scandalous measures on the black hole in this budget.

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Interview, Line Sirois, Coordinator,
Action Chômage, Quebec Côte-Nord


Forestville protest, November 24, 2017, calls for end to EI "black hole."

TML Weekly: The National Council of the Unemployed, of which Action Chômage Côte-Nord is a member, vehemently criticized the employment insurance measures contained in the federal government's budget, particularly with respect to the issue of the "black hole." Can you tell us more about this?

Line Sirois: The government treats us as second class citizens. Under the hoax of avoiding the black hole, people will have to go to training -- as if people lack training -- which is totally wrong. People who are on employment insurance, whose living comes from seasonal work, are trained by the companies that employ them. They are very well trained. When they need training, they are trained by the companies. People that are facing the black hole do not even have access to this government program. Even if we wanted to have access to this program, here on the North Shore there are not many institutions that provide training. It will be almost impossible to put this system in place. And, meanwhile, the government is saying that it has solved the problem, which is totally wrong. It is unconscionable. People will be trained in what? A forestry technician who has a degree, who is trained, who will not have enough weeks of work to get EI that lasts until he goes back to his seasonal job, will he have to train to do another job? There are plenty of questions that remain unanswered. I find it very humiliating for a government to say that it solved the problem by sending people to training. Our people do not need training. They need their EI benefits. They need to be recognized for who they are and they need to receive what belongs to them.

Nobody knows how the amounts that are mentioned in the budget for EI will be spent. What the federal government is telling us is that they shoveled the problem into the Quebec government's court. It will be up to the Quebec government to deal with the black hole. We know that government machines are very slow getting into motion, which means that people will have access to nothing. We are at the same point where we were yesterday or last year. They did absolutely nothing. They just pretend they have found a solution.

Training has always been there for workers. It's good to have training when you need it. However, our people have not lost their jobs. They have jobs but they need employment insurance between the period when their seasonal job stops and the period when it starts again. The government has absolutely no understanding of our demands. There is a lot of hypocrisy and even betrayal on the part of the government because they told us that they solved the problem. They said the Harper government did not understand the seasonal industry. They have just demonstrated that they do not understand it either. They are killing the industry.

We contacted the political attaché of Minister Duclos [Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, responsible for the Employment Insurance program -- TML note]. They tell us that the situation is in the hands of the Quebec government, that it will depend on the speed at which the Quebec government implements training for workers. Access to the amounts that our people need is conditional on the Quebec government putting training in place.

The Quebec Minister of Employment and Social Solidarity, François Blais, is left with the file. The government had a hot potato in its hands, and it passed it on to the Quebec government. The political attaché from Minister Duclos told us to check with Minister Blais how things are going. The way I understand this is that all amounts are conditional on participation in a training program. Usually, if you do training, there is a purpose behind it. Basically, what they are telling us is to change jobs. This is a direct attack on workers and regions, because many regions survive from seasonal work. The nature of the job is seasonal. The only solution we are being given is to leave.

TMLW: How do you see the development of your work in this situation?

LS: The first thing is we're not going away like this. We met with our workers. Everyone is quite angry. We will continue to demonstrate as we did. We will also continue to work with New Brunswick workers because they too are upset and have also organized protests in recent months.

It's important for the public to be informed. People need to know what is going on because the government claims to have solved the problem. We had public opinion with us. Now they are trying to turn public opinion against us by saying that our people do not want to do anything and that is why we are unhappy. We are preparing our response to this. We have to make sure that public opinion is on our side.

(Articles reprinted from TML Weekly # 9, March 10, 2018)

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