Hot! Stephen Harper’s stealth EI changes are a worry. – opinion/editorials
Published On Fri May 18 2012.

Does Prime Minister Stephen Harper intend to put jobless software developers to work as greeters at the local big-box store, rather than collect unemployment benefits? Does he see disabled autoworkers serving coffee at the drive-thru? And if so, shouldn’t he say so?

Major changes are coming to Canada’s employment insurance program, and they may not be pretty.

There’s talk for example of Ottawa forcing “repeat users” of EI to accept lower-paying jobs. But the Conservatives won’t tell Parliament or the public what they have in mind, leaving employers and workers alike in utter confusion. The Harper cabinet intends to spring a new set of “stealth” rules on us by way of regulation, months from now, after it has amended the Employment Insurance Act to strip away existing rights to refuse lousy jobs.

Right now people claiming EI are required to make a “reasonable” effort to find work and to accept “suitable employment” or face being cut off. Fair enough. No one wants to encourage layabouts. However, the rules do rightly let people refuse jobs in their field that offer worse than average pay or working conditions, or jobs outside their field that pay less or involve worse conditions. The much-criticized budget implementation bill, C-38, removes those common sense safeguards. In future, cabinet will dictate what’s reasonable and suitable, via regulations.

Given that the EI program is not a government giveaway, but aninsurance program into which employers and working people pay, the Tories have no business arrogantly ramming changes through Parliament without spelling out what they have in mind and allowing for public scrutiny.

We’re not talking about minor tinkering in an obscure program. Last year nearly 850,000 Canadians collected EI. Most relied on it to tide them over from one job to another offering roughly comparable pay and benefits. They deserve to know exactly how their government intends to amend the rules. The signs are anything but reassuring.

In Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s flinty mind, there’s a labour shortage in parts of the country (read: the West) that Ottawa intends to address by “encouraging” more people to work. “There’ll be a broader definition and people will have to engage more in the workforce,” he says. That includes the disabled and aboriginals. Moreover, in Flaherty’s view “any job is a good job.” He may have graduated from Princeton University, but he also drove a cab and refereed hockey.

But hurrying skilled people into menial jobs out of some misplaced sense that any job will do is a waste of resources. They should have the time to canvass for jobs that make productive use of their know-how. The current rules reflect that reality.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley insists that people won’t be forced to relocate or to take any old job that’s going. But we won’t know until cabinet rolls out the new rules. Even employers are asking for more clarity on this.

Which brings us back to the prime minister. Is he with Flaherty or Finley? In his world, will an unemployed welder or car mechanic be expected to clean Calgary office buildings overnight, or to plant seedlings in tapped-out tarsands? It would be good to know.

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