The omnibus budget bill making its way through Parliament makes changes to the Employment Insurance Act, including how suitable employment is defined and determined.
"There’ll be a broader definition and people will have to engage more in the work force," Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told reporters on May 14.
Right now, people who become unemployed and who have paid into the Employment Insurance system can collect benefits for a length of time that varies depending on the region where they live. But they must also look for a new job, and start work if something suitable becomes available.
The current criteria for "suitable" jobs in the Unemployment Insurance Act are somewhat vague, however.
An unemployed person can refuse work if that job:
- Results from a situation involving a labour dispute.
- Pays less or has less favourable conditions than work covered by existing collective agreements, or "those recognized by good employers."
- Is not their usual occupation and pays less or has conditions less favourable than that person "might reasonably expect to obtain."
There is nothing specific about shift work, night shifts, casual or temporary employment.
The legislation does not mention geographic relocation. Neil Cohen, the executive director of the Community Unemployed Help Centre in Winnipeg, told CBC News that the unemployed are not required to re-locate to take on a new job, but they are expected to look for work within about a 75 kilometre radius.
Both the would-be employee and the the agency have to be flexible, given the current legislation, Cohen added. Analysts say the Harper government wants change in this area of the law.
The present "suitable employment definition has been largely developed and influenced by the courts, " Cohen said, so the changes in the budget bill mark a major shift.
If Bill C-38 passes, the cabinet will be able to define what kinds of jobs someone receiving employment insurance payments must accept. will pass from the House of Commons and the courts to the cabinet. Yesterday, the bill passed second reading.
"The government has certainly indicated that the direction is to further restrict what is considered to be suitable employment," Cohen noted.
The government has not stated when the new regulations will be unveiled.
Flaherty's remarks followed comments by another cabinet minister in April that also staked out new ground without providing specifics. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told the National Post editorial board that if unemployed Canadians, "don't take available work, you don't get EI." Kenney claimed, "That's always been a legal principle of that program."
However, the Act states that to collect benefits, one has to be "available for work" but it is suitable work that they must take.
Photo: CP/Andrew Vaughan
When it comes to evaluating Canadian job growth, the employment numbers are just part of what worries Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC World Markets. "It's not only the quantity, but also the quality of employment that's falling in Canada," says Tal. "A lot of the jobs that are being created are low-quality, especially part-time jobs and low-paying jobs." Though -- unlike the U.S. -- Canada has regained all the jobs lost in the recession, he says that an absence of good-paying jobs is the "main reason" why wages have stagnated. Adjusted for inflation, personal after-tax income is now rising at the slowest rate since 1995. Meanwhile, the skills mismatch in many jurisdictions has left employers short on skilled labour despite still-high unemployment levels in other regions. "If you lose a job, you don't have the skill set to go an find a job elsewhere that companies want and need," says Tal. (Alamy photo)
When Caterpillar decided to stop assembling locomotives in its Electro-Motive facility in London, Ont., it was a poignant reminder of how globalization is giving deep-pocketed, transnational corporations the ultimate trump card in bargaining with workers: a cheaper alternative. According to Mike Moffatt, a labour expert at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey School of Business, because of automation and an increase in imports from lower wage jurisdictions like China and Mexico, Canadian workers are competing for fewer manufacturing jobs. "That's given firms real power to negotiate down wages," says Moffatt, who points to the <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/06/riotintoalcan-alma-idUSL2E8D699U20120206" target="_hplink">Rio Tinto lockout in Quebec</a> as another illustration of the might afforded to companies with global reach. Since locking out workers at its aluminum smelter in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean on December 31, the Anglo-Australian mining giant has used non-union workers to operate the facility at one-third capacity. With no plans to return to the bargaining table, the company recently announced it is restarting two suspended lines, and is expecting to return to full capacity in May. As Tal maintains, "In this environment, the bargaining power of labour is diminishing."
Just as the power has shifted toward private-sector employers, Michael Lynk, a labour law expert at the University of Western Ontario, says there is a sense that governments are becoming emboldened amid the post-recession climate of austerity that has swept from Toronto's City Hall to Parliament Hill. "There's increasingly an attitude of take-it-or-or leave-it by [private sector] employers, but we may begin to see that with public sector bargaining as well, where they basically say, 'You have to meet our bargaining objectives this round, and we're going to be prepared to endure a short or lengthy lockout to prove our point," he says. Though global economic instability recently prompted federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to pull back on his earlier commitment to deep cost-cutting in the upcoming budget, government departments are expecting spending to be slashed by between five and 10 per cent, a goal that will be met at least in part at the expense of public service jobs and benefits. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently estimated that the <a href="http://www.behindthenumbers.ca/2012/02/02/federal-cuts-could-push-unemployment-to-8/" target="_hplink">federal government's budget cuts could push unemployment up half a percentage point, to 8 per cent</a>. (CP photo)
From <a href="http://dalgazette.com/featured/faculty-strike-rumours-explained/" target="_hplink">Dalhousie University</a> to <a href="http://www.thestar.com/article/1120516--labour-strife-ahead-in-air-canada-pilot-talks" target="_hplink">Air Canada</a>, employers no longer able -- or willing -- to fund costly pension plans are mounting attempts to roll back retirement benefits, stoking labour unrest and a growing sense of financial insecurity among workers. As Dalhouse University labour economist Lars Osberg explains, the financial crisis took a huge bite out of the value of corporate pension portfolios and the interest rate required to generate the stream of returns to make these programs sustainable. All of which explains why experts anticipate a deepening of the trend away from inflation-protected, gold-plated defined-benefit pension plans, shifting responsibility for retirement savings from employers to workers.
The power in numbers that enabled Big Labour to negotiate better wages and benefits in the aftermath of the Second World War is a distant memory today, as the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/12/12/canada-income-inequality-decline-unions-middle-class-jobs_n_1139136.html" target="_hplink">erosion of unions continues to whittle away the strength of collective bargaining</a>. This is particularly true in the private sector, where unionization sits at 16 per cent of employees, less than a quarter of public sector unionization. "I think you will see more disputes with unions having to compromise more than in the past," says Tal. "I really don't see that they have the upper hand at this point." Given the yawning gap between private and public sector unionization, Lynk warns that pressure on public sector unions could mount as it has in the U.S. in recent months. "The argument they've been floating is, 'Why should public sector workers have jobs for life, good pensions, and decent wages? They're eating up your taxes,'" he says. "I wouldn't be surprised if we're not [starting] to see the beginnings of that kind of argument here in Canada."