OTTAWA - A new study from the Human Resources Department suggests Ottawa is looking at ways to get people receiving employment insurance to move to other regions with more jobs.
Such measures would go beyond the Harper government's new policy that appears to require that some EI recipients take unfilled jobs but only in their own region.
A focus group study, completed in January, asked 75 people on EI in Quebec and Atlantic Canada what would it take to get them to move to regions where there are more jobs available.
The research, ordered last June shortly after the Conservatives were elected with a majority, required the survey company to determine "what type of migration incentives could encourage EI clients to accept a job that requires a residential move?"
Sage Research Corp. reported that the EI clients in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., Corner Brook, Nfld., Miramichi, N.B., and Yarmouth, N.S., all reacted positively to some proposed financial incentives, such as reimbursement for moving expenses or for travel costs to a job interview.
One "concept is to reimburse moving expenses for unemployed people who have moved and found a permanent job in another region," says the final report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
"There was a degree of positive reaction to this concept as an incentive from a number of participants."
The study did not explore whether the prospect of being cut off from EI benefits might also encourage a move to other regions, but focused instead on cost reimbursement.
The issue of EI changes has dominated debate in Parliament this week, with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty suggesting sweeping reforms that could include requiring EI recipients to take low-level jobs outside their skills and work experience.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has tried to douse the controversy by saying the reforms would not require EI recipients to take jobs outside their regions or beyond their "skill sets."
However the proposed amendments, buried in the government's omnibus budget bill, contain no details or definitions, simply empowering the minister to change regulations without parliamentary scrutiny.
A spokeswoman for Finley tried to distance the minister from the newly released study.
"This research was commissioned by the department without the knowledge of the minister," Alyson Queen said in an email.
"We have been quite clear that the intent of the improvements we are making to the Employment Insurance program are to connect Canadians with local jobs opportunities, in their area."
Queen added: "We were not even aware of this report or the research being conducted. It was not commissioned by us and was not a part of our policy considerations."
Finley later issued a statement from Guadalajara, Mexico, where she was travelling:
"Economic Action Plan 2012 committed to increasing efforts that will better connect Canadians with opportunities in their local labour market.
"Our government has been very clear that changes will connect Canadians with available jobs in their own area.
"The study in question did not inform the policy direction we are taking to improve employment insurance."
But Saskatchewan's premier suggested measures to promote mobility are indeed on the federal EI agenda.
"There are ... some built-in disincentives for people in certain parts of the country to go where there is a labour shortage in other parts of the country," Brad Wall said at the legislature in Regina on Thursday.
"So we're hearing in principle anyway that they're looking at those changes and that they may be announcing something soon."
Wall said he pressed Prime Minister Stephen Harper for EI changes in the winter, to help alleviate worker shortages in Saskatchewan. The premier led a delegation to Ireland earlier this year to find workers for about 275 unfilled jobs in the province.
A researcher with the Mowat Centre, a Toronto-based think tank, said the study's examination of so-called "mobility grants" is indeed out of step with the government's recent policy statements on EI changes.
But Jon Medow also noted the Harper government's new labour policies are already inconsistent, allowing some employers with unfilled jobs to pay temporary foreign workers wages up to 15 per cent below prevailing rates, further reducing the attractiveness of the often low-level work for Canadians on EI.
"It seems pretty incoherent," he said in an interview.
The Sage report also helps undermine a long-held criticism of the EI system, that is, that more generous benefits in high-unemployment regions reduces labour mobility to regions with work available.
The focus-group study found that most EI recipients did not know their region had richer EI benefits than other parts of Canada, and therefore the more generous benefits had little impact on decisions to stay put.
"When the question of whether EI rules or 'generosity' affect thinking about moving, the usual reaction from participants was a blank stare. ...
"Awareness that EI generosity varies regionally was quite limited. ... This low awareness indicates most participants have not consciously connected relative EI generosity to their thinking about moving."
Medow said the study's finding supports his think-tank's view that EI benefits should be uniform across Canada.
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."