Employment insurance a raw deal

Workers are getting a raw deal from employment insurance with only 45 per cent of Canada’s unemployed eligible.

Workers are getting a raw deal from employment insurance with only 45 per cent of Canada’s unemployed eligible.

This is no surprise, given that the government slanted the rules against workers, and employers have changed the rules of work to their advantage.

The result is these workers do pay insurance premiums they can never collect because they lack the hours needed to qualify.

If this was a health-care insurance company denying a cancer patient benefits, we would be outraged and cheering on Erin Brockovich.

The reality is that workers are on their own. With eligibility rates as low as 30 per cent in Ontario, a hard-hit province if I’ve ever seen one, the denial of employment insurance payments to workers is an overlooked tragedy.

People are losing their homes and cutting expenses, from school supplies to dentist visits, because the insurance that should have had their back was denied them.

And the number of claims are going back up as our economy stutters: Alberta’s claims rose by 12.1 per cent between March and July 2010, just shy of the 12.6 per cent increase in Ontario and Manitoba.

Yet most of these claims will be in vain, throwing people on the mercies of their provinces’ meagre welfare systems. We can thank Liberal human resources minister Lloyd Axworthy in the early-’90s for his “reforms” that helped reduce Canada’s deficit by cutting benefits and making eligibility even harder to attain.

In short, he gutted the program and today working Canadians are paying the price by falling into poverty.

EI has not caught up to the reality of work in Canada, particularly for young workers who are working multiple part-time jobs to pay the bills. Permanent, full-time employment is no longer even an economic goal on the part of businesses and politicians.

Neoliberal demands for more so-called flexible forms of employment (contract, temporary, casual, part-time work) are resulting in workers not meeting the hours quota required to qualify for EI, according to an EI report by the Toronto Social Planning Council. The number of workers eligible for EI in 1990 was 80 per cent; by the end of 2008, it was 44.5 per cent.

In short, this safety net has more holes than net, affecting disproportionately and unfairly to immigrants, youth and women.

The result of denying so many EI claims is a $57 billion surplus in the federal EI fund, which Liberal and Conservative governments have used to balance their budgets, rather than help unemployed workers.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business denounced the government for taking $57 billion over the last ten years from the pockets of workers and employers, who each pay part of the premium. Canada could have, and should have, built up an emergency reserve fund for the inevitable bust to Canada’s boom economy.

Employment insurance could have been the stimulus package that kept both Canadians and our economy in good health when the October 2008 meltdown happened. Instead, we have the government spending us into debt and claiming credit for every infrastructure project they approved with our money.

What Canadian workers need to do is go on the offensive to get back their $57 billion and their right to be eligible for the unemployment insurance their wages pay for. Politicians of every stripe cannot be trusted with our money or working class interests — it is time to take back the nation’s kitchen table and put workers in charge.

Peter Moore is a freelance writer based in Ottawa and former editor of the Industrial Worker newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World.