Employment insurance and Harper's flexibility fanaticism

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Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

As oil prices drop, rumours in the Maritimes are on the rise: the region's migrant workers, who send money home from their jobs "out west," might be coming home for good.

In 2012, the Conservative government made deep cuts to the employment insurance (EI) program. The cuts were meant to encourage workers in high unemployment regions to relocate to low unemployment regions, like Alberta. Now, having heeded the call for mobility, workers will return home to stubbornly high unemployment rates and a hollowed-out EI program.

Welcome to Harper's flexibility fanaticism.

The rise of this mobile workforce has paralleled Canada's bitumen explosion. The number of inter-provincial workers in Alberta -- those working in Alberta and living in another province -- surpassed the number of in-migrants in 2005. Between 2004 and 2009, Alberta's interprovincial workforce doubled from roughly 65,000 to 128,000.

In January 2013, the EI cuts drew three quarters of the Magdalen Islands' population into the streets. Their placards read "Non à l'exode!" in reference to the westward procession sure to follow the cuts. And follow it has.

There is a curious lack of available data about the tens of thousands of workers who make the 4,000 kilometre commute "out west" from their homes on the east coast.

But information gathered by local unions and community groups suggests the EI cuts are pushing people westward in search of the liveable income and sense of security they are being denied at home. Statistics Canada data for 2004 to 2009 -- the most recent period for which data is available -- indicates that the average mobile worker is increasing in age and is more and more likely to have a family back home.

And, despite the stories of money-drunk men in the oil patch, the 2009 median income for these workers was $33,000. These numbers suggest that the prevalence of people turning to long-distance shift-work is not squarely the product of individual choice; more often, it's the product of need.

The EI cuts are designed to increase westward mobility by intensifying this need. Under the changes, repeat users are penalized, new barriers are erected for seasonal workers, claimants face increased surveillance, and overall access to the program is reduced.

Today, about one-in-three unemployed people is accessing regular benefits, and the poor and precariously employed are bearing the brunt of this exclusion. EI access hasn't been this low since 1944.

Employment insurance, like immigration policy, functions in part as a tool for governments to service labour markets. Regulations are readjusted as market conditions and labour needs change.

EI cuts have worked in tandem with immigration restructuring to suppress wages and ensure flexibility for employers; as Canadian workers flood west, they are replaced at home by temporary foreign workers, the 'ultimate' flexible workforce, whose temporary legal status in Canada and the threat of deportation make them far more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Energy industry associations and business organizations lobby for EI reform, alongside immigration reform, as a pathway to pools of cheaper, more flexible labour.

Federal governments since the 1990s have recited a tired story of unemployed people and seasonal workers as lazy. They have blamed EI for breeding cultures of defeat and trapping people in place. They have preached individual responsibility including, now, the responsibility to be mobile: that, if the market dictates your home is economically 'unviable,' you leave your communities, relationships, and non-economic responsibilities.

Communities have made themselves flexible: families have separated, schools have revised their curricula, and workers have retrained. Now we're likely to see the other face of flexibility as tar sands projects are put on hold and workers are ejected from the system.

Reducing access to EI is about creating a flexible, disposable workforce that will travel to remote reaches of the country at the whim of global markets. These cuts are part of a broader collection of extraction-oriented policy moves, ranging from the gutting of environmental legislation, to the undermining of indigenous sovereignty, to the criminalization of dissent.

The EI cuts have rattled Atlantic Canada, but they aren't our problem alone. They are one part of Harper's flexibility fanaticism and, if we care about human and environmental dignity, this fanaticism should concern us all.

Katie Mazer is the Atlantic Beat Editor for rabble.ca and a member of the PEI Coalition for Fair EI.

Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

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