Victor Boudreau is one of my favorite politicians but his comments in the paper reflect the challenge we face when trying to have a substantive debate on EI. He says:
“No amount of training will change the fact we have seasonal industries,” Boudreau said. “No matter how well-trained our workforce could be, you can’t fish lobster, grow potatoes or draw tourists to our beaches in January. So there’s always going to be a need for a federal EI program that will assist our seasonal industries.”
That might actually be true but even it if is how many of the 100,000 NBers who collect EI each year are employed in these industries? They haven’t told us.
We do know from Statistics Canada, in an average month there are 4,100 persons working in agriculture across the province and we know there are only 11,900 working in forestry, fishing, mining, quarrying, oil and gas combined. There are another 30,000 working in manufacturing but how many of those are seasonal?
In addition how many of these seasonal industries are important enough to offer large subsidies to keep them running? They haven’t told us. How many of these industries could be served by other segments of the labour market – yes – including the dreaded temporary foreign worker program? They haven’t told us.
So we dance on while very few folks have any real data on which to draw their conclusions.
Take the guy this morning who wrote how shocked he was that businesses were allowed to use the temporary foreign worker program in areas with high EI usage (this guy was very left of centre – it wasn’t a right wing diatribe). If he actually talked to one or two businesses he would realize that the high EI usage is precisely why they are using the TFW program. Many of them can’t get workers to work year round.
Dancing in the light is hard enough (trust me my wife and I have been taking dance lessons for two years). In the dark it’s almost impossible.
The most compelling argument, of course, is that we shouldn’t abandon these folks. We get back to that de facto policy of slowly emptying out rural and small communities and ensuring there are government funding programs to ease the pain of decline. One bureaucrat told me this a couple of years ago. Let the young people leave and have these programs that will fade away over time as people age.
The trouble with that vision is the bulk of EI users (55%) in New Brunswick are under the age of 44. Again, we don’t know the age demographic of the annual users of EI because they haven’t made that data public.
I reiterate my view that we should go back to the drawing board on this. Start with the stated goal of dramatically reducing EI usage – that’s fine. Maybe we have as a goal moving seasonal industry support right out of the EI program completely. Whatever. We start with a goal. We have as a guiding principle not to make things worse and then we get down to business – with very good data to support the discussions.