Labour Day reminder: Harper's EI changes hit immigrants hardest

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For more than 130 years, workers have celebrated Labour Day in Canada to recognize the hard fought struggles that women and men have undertaken for better working and living conditions.

As we celebrate our past accomplishments, the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA) reminds us all that the struggle for dignity and respect in the workplace is an ongoing process. Recent changes to our Employment Insurance will have a tremendous impact on all workers: and we all need to resist these changes.

Racialized and immigrant communities will be hardest hit by recent changes to Canada's Employment Insurance program. Buried in the last budget, the federal government announced a series of changes relating to eligibility requirements on who can collect employment insurance benefits. The changes included the following: 

-Workers who have made more than three claims for EI and have received 60 weeks of benefits over a five year period will be expected to take a 20 per cent cut in their pay if offered a similar job to what they had previously. This change impacts about one in three unemployed workers.

-Workers who have made occasional claims will be expected to take a 10 per cent wage cut if offered a job immediately; a 20 per cent cut after seven weeks; and a 30 per cent cut if they are offered a job after 18 weeks.

-The unemployed will be required to search for work up to one hour away from their place of residence.

-Unemployed workers will be required to take jobs below their skill level, thus decreasing wages and increasing the shortages in skilled labour.

There has been some analysis done on how stringent eligibility requirements have eroded the ability of many workers to access benefits.  However. there has been no analysis on how these changes will particularly impact racialized and immigrant communities.

While a breakdown on who is accessing benefits is not available, two studies undertaken by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) in 2010 and 2011 shed some light on what implications these changes will have,  specifically on racialized and immigrant communities. In analyzing data from the 2006 census (well before the economic recession), the CCPA found the following trends across Canada:

-19.8 per cent of racialized families live in poverty.

-Racialized men are 24 per cent more likely to be unemployed than non racialized men.

-48 per cent of racialized women are more likely to be unemployed than non racialized men.

-Racialized women earn 55.6 per cent of the income non racialized men earn.

In Ontario the picture was not much better: 

-Racialized workers were paid less than non racialized workers (ie., racialized men made 73.6 per cent of wages earned by white male workers and racialized women made 84.7 per cent of what white women workers made).

-Racialized workers experienced higher unemployment rates than white workers (8.7 per cent for racialized  vs. 5.8 per cent for non racialized workers).

-First generation racialized Ontarians earn less than non racialized immigrants, racialized women earn 47 cents on a dollar compared to white men.

Immigration program is recruitment agency for employers

Census data does not also account for the rise in numbers of the temporary foreign worker program (TFW), an employer driven federal program that denies its participants equal access to labour or social mobility.

With over 280,000 migrant workers employed under the TFW, the federal government also announced that high skilled migrant workers would be subjected to a 15 per cent decrease in wages compared to Canadians and migrant workers employed under the “low skilled program” (people employed in the service sector) can be paid 5 per cent less than Canadian workers,

Canada’s immigration system is being used as a de facto job recruitment agency for employers. The largest increases in the temporary foreign worker program are migrants employed under the ‘low skilled category’. These workers employed at low wage jobs are tied to an employer and can not exercise basic rights because of a constant threat of deportation. Rather than address the structure of indenturing workers to an employer, the Federal government has instead penalized these migrants by saying that they can work in Canada for four years, but can not come back to Canada for a minimum of four years after their initial contract.

While issues of unemployment and underemployment are difficult conversations in our communities, anecdotal evidence from ACLA members show how bleak the picture is particularly for immigrant communities. Pearl’s family illustrates how the recession has impacted racialized workers.

One family's story: Falling through the cracks

Pearl's family immigrated to Canada in 1989. As a successful engineer back home working for the construction industry, he brought his family to Canada in hopes of a better life. Finding no work in the skilled construction industry, Pearl's father found work in various restaurants across the city as a waiter. After 21 years in the industry the restaurant he worked for fell victim to the recession and was forced to sell their business. As an older unemployed worker he continues to face numerous barriers to finding work, and has not stopped trying to find work on a daily basis.

He felt that he faced discrimination because of both his status as an older worker and perceptions that, because he was an immigrant, he would not be able to speak English.  So employers didn’t hire him. After less than a year on EI he was told that his benefits would be cut off, leaving him without the ability to provide for his family.

Pearl’s brother Ed, a construction labourer, faced a similar fate when in late 2011 he was laid off from his non unionized job and for the last year has not been able to provide for his children. Recently Pearl, who, along with her mother, was the main wage earners in her family, was also laid off from her well paying job in the public sector, thus causing further pain and suffering for her family. 

This snapshot reflects the experiences of hundreds of thousands of currently unemployed workers. In July 2012, Canada lost over 30,000 jobs and our unemployment rate increased to 7.3 per cent, one of the most significant job losses over the last year.  EI and other components of the social safety net are meant to support families like Pearl’s to sustain themselves in times of financial need.  Nevertheless, the benefits are woefully inadequate in our current income security system.

The federal government has adopted a strategy of divide and rule. It has workers looking over each other's shoulders. Instead of our communities uniting together to implement a strategy of jobs with dignity for all, these changes are reflective of a mean spirited agenda to attack the most vulnerable amongst us.

Some of us are vilifying EI recipients as abusers; instead, we should spend our efforts in condemning the federal government for its failure to develop a job creation strategy. Politicians are creating laws that put all workers under further precarious conditions.

Instead of blaming migrant workers for stealing our jobs, driving down wages, and threatening our communities, we should be blaming the system that denies these women and men rights we should all enjoy. Instead of persecuting the most vulnerable who rely on our social safety net for support under Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Programs, we should challenge the 1 per cent who continue to maximize profits while the rest of us suffer.

Reform the immigration system

As communities whose constituents will face the greatest burden as a result of austerity measures, it’s imperative for us to come together and to organize and demand steps be taken to protect the most vulnerable. ACLA believes that our EI system should be reformed so that all workers (Canadian and migrant) receive equal access to entitlements when they are in need.

Expanding our social safety net is essential so that people in our communities are provided with a standard of living that gives them dignity, something that is denied by our current system. Our immigration laws should not be used to criminalize migrants; we should have an immigration system which is just and humane. Compassion and fairness for all should be priorities as we embark on one of the greatest economic challenges that we will face.

Rather than claw back gains that have been made to build protection for our communities, let's take the necessary steps to build, invest and expand protections so that everyone can participate in building a society where people are treated with the dignity and respect we all deserve. 


The Asian Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA) is a grassroots collective of community and labour activists.

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