Monday, 17 June 2013

E.I. and the Tyranny of Self-Righteousness

Newfoundland and Labrador, in April 2013, boasted an unadjusted 13.7% unemployment rate. 13.7% of NL’s workforce represents 32,700 people. By any measure, it is far too many in an economy, which the Premier boasts, is ‘white hot’. 

Employers’ claim, that they can’t find adequate labour, is supported with the existence of 1600 vacancies, again an April figure. One indicator of problems, in the job market, is the ratio of unemployed persons to the number of job vacancies, at least, officially.  In Nova Scotia it is 12.3, in New Brunswick 15.5, the Canadian average is 6.5; in NL the ratio is 20.9!  

That’s a big ratio of available labour to job openings.  It should get noticed.
One reason, of course, is that NL’s unemployment statistics are exaggerated by groups of aging workers and fisher people. Many live in remote communities whose only raison d’etre, was and still is, harvesting the sea.  The ground fishery is barely standing, a situation compounded by limited allocations, competition from Chinese wages and the migration of young people to growth centers. Fisher people must feel marooned, cut-off, not just from employment but from influence on public policy, as they once had.

In time, we will debate Newfoundland’s inability to maintain a fish company of international size and brand power; for the present, however, we ought to pay deference to aging fisher people who still try and cling to the only work most of them know.   

A couple of months ago a furor broke out in the House of Commons  over a “crackdown on EI claimants that includes sending government inspectors to people’s homes…” The Federal Human Resources Minister had to defend herself against charges, by Union leaders and Opposition politicians, who accused her of “treating the unemployed like criminals”. Cries of derision greeted the Open Line Shows and other media.       

Imagine that someone would deliberately rip off the EI system! As if the public purse is inviolate to everyone, except Senators.

Recently, Church Bishops got in on the act, issuing a ‘Letter’ of concern over the impact of the EI changes, which make it more difficult for people to refuse work, requiring them to travel up to 100 KM. "You can't look at someone who is unemployed as a problem," said the Archbishop of St. John's, Martin Currie.  As if the issue were really that black and white! 

Like other groups, the Churches were playing it safe on EI, offering no distinction between the various groups of unemployed and why they are not working, especially those living on the “white hot” Northeast Avalon.

Thought admittedly, there are issues of skills matching, that is only part of the problem.  The truth is, the EI issue says far more about the state of our politics than any issue of EI eligibility. Politics is not just played by governments and political parties; just about every group, these days, churches, unions, perhaps even the bake sale committee, feel a sense of self-righteousness.  They are scared they will be out of step with any group thought competent in matters of political correctness.

The way all these groups see it, having to distinguish between eligibility and what has become ‘entitlement’, is fraught with risk, so why bother. And, anyway, the claims come out of some miraculous pot! It doesn’t cost us anything, does it!  

It is not a big leap to differentiate between one group of unemployed, whose remote rural and age characteristics and skills challenges are distinctly different from those of a younger, more urbanized group, who enjoy health and accessibility to job openings.  But, interest groups won’t go down that road; they might muddy a protected position, they might compromise a safe constituency. Can’t have that, can we!

While business types complain, few talk publicly about those who refuse lower wage jobs, even when they offer well above the minimum wage.  

The fact is, governments have corrupted EI policies, for years. They have invented additional qualifying weeks.  They have used the EI system to shore up the votes of seasonal workers.  After four decades of engaging in unbridled abuse and maiming the very purpose for which the system was established, EI ‘entitlement’ has become broadly cultural.

Governments have behaved so badly, and the constituency of EI users is so large, any attempt to plug the system’s most egregious shortcomings, has to be opposed. 

For political parties, churches and unions, any fix is a flag to claim some moral high ground.  They would rather overlook abuse, watch the sense of entitlement grow, and see foreign labourers eagerly sign on to perform work, locals should be doing.

There is one more aspect to this problem, to which the self-righteous are blind. It is this: older, rural fisher people are being used, as cover, to stymy much needed change.  Though they are largely disenfranchised from influence now, that very group may have a far greater claim to better benefits; but they can’t be heard.  The thunder of the self-righteous perpetuates a system, in which they are forced to share with those who can’t get their asses out of bed.   

Enlightened public policy ought to trump self-interest and protect the public purse from a system that is flawed.  EI is only, euphemistically, an ‘insurance’ program; but it shouldn’t be.  It needs to be re-invented in a way that punishes frequent users in locations, where jobs are available. It should also recognize aging fisher persons and give them the dignity they are due.  And, yes, it should be calculated to force the hangashores out of bed.   

While foreign workers are welcome, an activist approach to getting healthy people off their fannies should be a priority for any society worth its salt.  EI ‘inspectors’ are one thing, but some better public policy supported by the very groups, who now oppose such change, would be an even better beginning.

It is time that the self-righteous recognized that there is virtue in self-reliance.