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The Real Culture of Dependency: In Defense of Atlantic Canada

May 31, 2012

5-minute read

Co-authored with Brian Foster

“Is the EI system making it more attractive to not work?”

That’s the (attempt at) thought-provoking (or fire-stoking) title of a recent National Post piece, written in the aftermath of Jim Flaherty’s intellectually lazy and socially irresponsible public musings on the psychological, voluntaristic reasons for Canada’s unemployment rate.

Flaherty, recalling his own years spent toiling as a referee in the wretched, undervalued and invisible Canadian hockey industry, posited that “the only bad job is not having a job”. Most unemployment in Canada, viewed through Flaherty’s diamond-encrusted monocle, is the result of jobless people being too choosy about which jobs they’ll do.

The rest of it, apparently, is the result of laziness.

That’s what the National Post’s Sarah Boesveld oh-so-subtly suggests in her article, based on a series of confessional interviews with people-who-have-friends-who-might-have-at-one-time-spent-a-few-extra-months-on-EI.

“The government makes it so easy,” one of them said. It’s “free money.”

Several other articles take aim specifically at workers in Atlantic Canada, many of whom are seasonally employed and draw on EI the rest of the year. As Jane Taber puts it in the Globe and Mail, in Nova Scotia, PEI, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, “EI is less an insurance program than an income maintenance plan.” For moral high horsers like Boesveld and former Maritimer Brian Lee Crowley, and for the Harper Government, this is infuriating.

The key word there, however, is moral. There is no practical, economic or social reason to be up in arms over people using EI when there are plenty of bad jobs to go around. The only reason these writers and pundits and politicians have their knickers in a knot is because the refusal to sell one’s labour for minimum wage (or worse) is an affront to their middle-class Tory sensibilities, and therefore a threat to the middle-class Tory privileges around which this moral order is built.

Indeed, the practical, economic and social objections – and some of the moral ones, too – melt away when we give ourselves a much-needed refresher on EI – what it is, where it comes from, what it’s for, and when (if ever) we need to worry about it.

For starters, EI ain’t welfare. It is entirely funded by workers and their employers. Think of it like a savings account you contribute to the whole time you’re working. (We’ll return to the employer contributions later.)

You draw on it only if and when you lose your job, through no fault of your ownAnd even then, you need to have worked between 420 and 700 hours over the previous year.

That’s why well under 40% of people who become unemployed are actually able to claim EI.

Second, don’t kid yourself, Jane Taber. EI isn’t really about “income maintenance” for workers, no matter how clever that sounds as a rhetorical device.

EI is the only thing that allows seasonal industries to survive in our day and age. EI lets employers off the hook for three or six months of the year, so that when they’re not making money, they’re not paying anyone.

There are two alternatives to seasonal workers going on EI: employers could continue to pay them all year round, or they could resort to subsistence living in the off-months. If either of those scenarios happened, the economic consequences would be disastrous. When people have money, they spend it. That’s what we need. That’s why we’re in a flap over Canadians shopping in the U.S. That’s why the fifties were so prosperous for so many people and we’re in so much debt trying to maintain old consumer standards with lower incomes today. That’s why wage stagnation is followed by economic recession. Why that’s so difficult a lesson to learn is beyond us.

If middle-class people want to eat lobster in the summer, bite into Annapolis Valley apples in the fall, haul the kids to PEI for vacation in June, golf at Dundee Resort in July, listen to fiddle music and get plastered on George Street or the Liquor Dome in August, and then forget about everything East of Montreal for the rest of the year, they’re going to have to damned well deal with the consequences, and one of the main consequences is EI. In that sense, EI is for you, Ontario and AlbertaIs your PEI Dirt Shirt feeling a little tight?

The response to this line of thought is predictable. “There’s a third alternative to EI,” the privileged silver spooners and wealthy-person sycophants will say: those out-of-workers should move somewhere else when the seasonal employment dries up. To that, we say, are you serious? While your version of “summering” in one place and “wintering” in another is a good way to stay tanned all year round, the one you propose for the wage labourers that prop up your privilege is far from sunny. It breaks up families and it destroys communities.

Workers do respond to shifting economic structures and dying industries, but they do so over multiple generations. That’s about the only thing that keeps the social fabric together.

In Brian Lee Crowley’s world, there are plenty of off-season jobs to go around in the Maritimes – like in the lucrative food services industry – where a grizzled, out-of-work South Shore lobster fisherman is as welcome as a buxom university student, and looks as good in short-shorts, right?

In his world, as in the world described by the CFIB’s Dan Kelly, it’s psychological and moral defect that makes people pass over minimum-wage jobs in favour of pocketing the money they, and their employers, “saved up” in their joint account during the on-season. Why don’t they “open their horizons,” as Jason Kenney puts it? Because they don’t value work, that’s why. They’re voluntarily unemployed.

In this rendering of the way the world works, EI should be reserved only for the imaginary people who lose their jobs in the context of full-employment – the last people without jobs in the entire country, as if the job market was a game of musical chairs.

Let’s, for a moment, imagine a much stricter EI system. Would it really make it more attractive to work a job, any job? If history tells us anything, the answer is no.

The US learned that lesson only after its bloody, violent Civil War. When that war was over, slaves and many wage workers liberated from the chains of forced labour simply dropped out of the market. They subsistence farmed. They developed economic markets not controllable by the state. They no longer produced the surplus value that kept industrial society going. It took the coercive power of the state stepping in, on behalf of the old landed class, to force people into industrial relationships. They did it by holding up wage labour as the ultimate freedom, and casting those who refused to participate as illiberal anarchists or Marxists.

That worked for a time. But the veneer of opportunity quickly wore thin. It became clear to workers that the system worked mainly for the industrial elite. They grew skeptical of the state’s attempts to depict this industrialist-centered market as the natural and inevitable outcome of all markets.

It took years of injustice, but people slowly began see the force of the state, mandating people to work in particular ways and forcing their production through laws and police, as the sign of a crumbling moral economic order. They realized things could be done differently. And they started to walk away.

Faced with the prospect of mass uprisings, un-nationalized economies, local government systems, and (worst of all) labourers dropping out of the economy, industrialists (labour and capital) and their governments across the Western world turned to social welfare as a way of keeping people morally and financially invested in a system where participation was exploitative by design.

Booming industries with subservient workers: that’s what the industrialists and governments want, and it’s what today’s EI-phobes want too. Yet their genteel fears of EI-abusers come from the same musty little place as fears of a coercive state. The very folks who want the state reduced to something that can be drowned in a bathtub depend on the state’s power. They need it to force people into subservient positions, even as they trumpet the value of individual choice and voluntarism.

That’s a hypocritical culture of dependency that makes our Maritime blood boil.

Karen Foster is a post-doctoral researcher with York University's Gender and Work and Comparative Perspectives on Precarious Employment Databases. Brian Foster is a PhD Candidate in History at Carleton University. This month, the Fosters are moving home to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, after seven years of living in Ontario. This post was originally featured here.

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