Federal budget offers workers a minimal dose of 'real change'

| March 23, 2016
Photo: flickr/ gigglebox1091;)

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The Liberals' new budget promises a much-needed funding boost to a range of Canadian initiatives and sectors.

Here are the new investments rated according to a budget wish list from the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

Strategic infrastructure investment

Over the next five years, $11.9 billion is due to be spent on new infrastructure. About 40 per cent of this ($5 billion) will be spent on water, wastewater and green infrastructure projects, while the rest will be split between spending on public transit systems and social infrastructure.

Of the $3.4 billion targeted for social infrastructure over the next five years, about two-thirds is expected to be spent on increasing access to more affordable housing in the next two years.

Meanwhile, spending on public transit systems will be rolled out at a slighter faster pace, with $3.4 billion set aside for the next three years. 

Fixing employment insurance

A raft of changes to the EI benefit system were tabled as part of the budget. The 910-hour eligibility requirement for those new to the workforce, or re-entering after a period off, is due to be replaced by a lower threshold of between 420 and 700 hours in July. This change means about 50,000 more people will be eligible for EI benefits, according to the government.

Rules directing job seekers to accept employment that paid less and required long commute times are also due to be eliminated, while those in the 12 economic regions worst-hit by unemployment are due to be eligible for an extra five weeks of benefits in July.

EI call centres were also given a slice of the pie, with $73 million over two years set aside for improvement measures like increasing call centre staff numbers.

Skills training and workforce development

An extra $165.4 million has been outlined for the Youth Employment Strategy in the budget, complementing last month's announcement of the government's three-year $339 million investment in the Canada Summer Jobs program. The program is expected to create 35,000 new jobs for young people annually.

For workers eligible for EI benefits, the CLC wanted an extra $500 million invested in training programs through Labour Market Development Agreements each year. The government has budgeted an extra $125 million on these agreements this year.

Over the next five years, $85.4 million has also been set aside for the development of a new framework supporting union-based apprenticeship training, a significantly smaller injection than the annual amount of $25 million the CLC had wanted for union training facilities.

Health care and the needs of Canada's ageing population

While extra money is due to be available for some seniors through increases in Guaranteed Income Supplements, changes for funding initiatives affecting elderly Canadians failed to live up to CLC expectations around health care. No commitment was made to the development of a national seniors' strategy that addressed home care, long-term care and community support services.

The budget also failed to address the need for a national prescription drug program, which would benefit elderly and vulnerable Canadians with high medication costs. The need for more health-care workers to help stem lengthy wait times in the system also failed to make the cut for the budget.

Investment in child care

While improvements in child care and early learning featured in the budget, families will have to wait at least another year for any changes, with the government deferring a $500 million investment sum for establishing a National Framework on Early Learning and Child Care until 2017/18.

The government stated it would work with provinces and territories and Indigenous communities to develop the framework. It has also set aside a fifth of this investment sum for Indigenous child care and early learning on reserve.

Measures to tackle child poverty 

The new Canada Child Benefit is due to replace the Canada Child Tax Benefit and Universal Child Care benefit in July. It increases the amount available to families receiving assistance, with the Liberals saying that nine out of 10 families will receive more through the Canada Child Benefit than current assistance programs.

Overall, the poorest families -- those earning less than $30,000 in net income -- will qualify for a maximum annual benefit of up to $6,400 per child under the age of six, and up to $5,400 per child for those aged between six and 18 years.

While the government estimates the new benefit will lift 300,000 children out of poverty in the next 12 months, the CLC believes a more targeted approach to tackling child poverty is needed through the establishment of a national child-care strategy, which would incorporate measures like the Canada Child Benefit.

Truth, reconciliation and justice for First Nations

Over the next five years, $8.4 billion will be invested in programs and initiatives designed to improve the socio-economic status of First Nations people. Nearly a third of this has been outlined for spending on primary and secondary education spending on reserve, while $1.8 billion will be invested in water and wastewater reserve infrastructure.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau pledged in his speech yesterday to "put an end to the unconscionable crisis of boil-water advisories on reserves," promising that every Canadian child would have access to clean drinking water in five years regardless of where they lived.

Skills and employment training for Indigenous peoples will also receive a $15 million investment over the next two years, as the government moves to launch a pilot project aimed at improving the quality of training initiatives available in Indigenous communities.

The national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has been allocated $40 million in funding over the next two years.

They did not follow-through on their promise to lift the two per cent cap currently limiting Indigenous higher education funding.

Help for seniors in poverty

The government has delivered on its election promise to increase the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) for single, low-income seniors by 10 per cent, allocating $670 million annually to topping up the benefit. Single seniors earning about $4,600 or less in annual income -- generally those that rely on GIS and Old Age Security benefits exclusively -- will have their GIS topped up to $947 each year.

Overall, about 900,000 seniors earning below the annual income threshold of about $8,400 will qualify for increases in their GIS.

Literacy investments

No mention was made of literacy and essential skills in the budget. Under the Harper government, funding for the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills lapsed each year. The CLC wanted it to be restored in the new budget.

Action on climate change

Research and development for green energy projects is a big part of this year's budget. The government committed to a host of initiatives, both immediate and longer-term, aimed at creating "a clean growth economy."

Over the next four years, $1 billion has been allocated to projects supporting clean technology in a range of areas, including the forestry, fisheries, mining, energy and agriculture sectors.

Nearly $2.9 billion is also due to be spent on addressing climate change and air pollution issues over a five-year period, beginning next year.


Photo: flickr/ gigglebox1091;)



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