It’s time to flip the script on Employment Insurance

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Message from the President Jerry Dias
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Canada’s social safety net - including Employment Insurance – has been dismantled bit by bit as part of a deliberate restructuring of our economy to suit the needs of business, not workers.

It was a failed experiment, and needs to be reversed.

There was a philosophical and ideological shift over a generation that put individualism first and foremost - a belief in working strictly for wages, rather than passion or principle, and shamed anything that looked like getting something for nothing.

Unemployment went from a being normal, structural economic issue affecting workers, to something unnatural, a result of personal flaws, lack of skill and character deficiencies.

Changing the name from Unemployment Insurance to Employment Insurance in 1996 was part of that. It was clear there would be no place for a strong unemployment insurance program, as we had seen in the early 1970s.  

In fact, the political architects of this neoliberal worldview worked hard to dismantle it, convincing policymakers the program was hurting Canada’s productivity and competitiveness by encouraging poor work ethics and habits.

Hogwash.

This patronizing government attitude can be best summed up by former Conservative Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, when, on the heels of the Great Recession and sustained joblessness in Canada, he remarked, “There is no bad job; the only bad job is not having a job.”

This myth of an increasingly idle Canadian workforce was told over and over by political leaders in speeches and media interviews - often with quotes from low-wage employers complaining they couldn’t find workers at poverty-level wages.

It all proved very effective on multiple levels.

It gave elected officials a political shield to justify cuts and restrict access to EI benefits.

It divided the working class. Those with good jobs were told they should resent “lazy people” abusing the program.

Applying for EI became punitive, socially unacceptable and difficult as possible for unemployed workers.

It made those working in exploitative and dangerous conditions to think twice about quitting - knowing they would not get EI while they looked for a better job.  

Worst of all, it reduced labour power and undermined wage growth - giving low-wage employers a pool of desperate workers willing to accept jobs, any jobs, despite their skills or interest.

COVID-19 has revealed not only how critically flawed EI had become, but poked many holes in the myths and assumptions that justified EI’s erosion in the first place.

CERB needed to be developed and implemented fast because of EI’s flawed design. No other pre-existing program could get the support needed by hundreds of thousands of jobless workers to pay their bills and buy essential goods and services. CERB helped absorb a lot of the economic shock the pandemic created.

How many additional businesses would have been forced to close if people did not have money to spend in their communities?

Canadians have now seen what happens when there are little-to-no income security supports in times of crisis, and are demanding that programs they contribute to will be when they need them.

In response, Unifor is launching a national campaign and report proposing meaningful reforms to Canada’s EI system, to make the program fair, accessible, equitable and resilient – a callback to why it was created in the first place, more than half a century ago.

EI is not a handout. It is a critical part of Canada’s social safety net, protecting workers, businesses, communities and the economy.

The corporate community might have benefitted from the “every person for themselves” ethos that ravaged workers’ livelihoods, but that experiment is over. It has abjectly failed.

The pandemic has reminded us all of the importance of the collective, and protecting the common good.  Throughout this difficult time, political leaders have often reassured us that “we’re all in this together.” It is time our social programs and policies reflect that.