Premiers should soundly reject Harper Government’s low-wage Schemes

It has become clear that the federal government, supported by a number of employer organizations, has a plan for transforming Canada’s labour market in ways that will profoundly hurt Canadians.

It’s a four-prong strategy which includes the dramatic expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), the erosion of Employment Insurance, raising the country’s retirement age, as well as a systematic effort to undermine the ability of unions to stand up for the rights of working people and improve their standard of living.

Taken together, these policies will suppress the wages and incomes of Canadians rather than address the real problems in Canada’s job market.

As provincial and territorial federations of labour leaders, representing over three million workers, we are calling on the premiers to stand with the workers of Canada against this cheap labour strategy.

Foreign Workers:  The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) is not immigration.  It’s exploitation.  These workers, most of whom are desperate and seeking a better life, are being used to create an underclass to drive down the wages and working conditions of Canadians.  It’s not fair or just to them or to their Canadian co-workers.  The recent decision by the Harper Conservatives to allow employers to pay temporary foreign workers 15% less is a blatant example of its low-wage strategy.

With 1.3 million unemployed and several hundred thousand more discouraged or underemployed Canadians, our focus should be on providing opportunities for Canada’s unemployed and underemployed.

Employment Insurance:  Instead of tackling unemployment in many regions of our country, the Harper plan has been to attack the unemployed.  The Conservative government’s changes to EI are clearly designed to force workers to take low-paying jobs or have their unemployment benefits cut off.  This is not about helping the unemployed find jobs - rather it is about serving them up to low-wage employers.

Old Age Security:  Increasing the country’s retirement age to 67 has nothing to do with the sustainability of our social programs.  It is rather, about forcing older workers who have struggled with low and medium wages throughout their working lives to work two more years.  It is about expanding the pool of desperate workers who have no choice but to work for less.

Attacks on Unions:  Unions are one of the few mechanisms to protect the rights of working people and improve their standard of living.  What unions achieve at the collective bargaining table lifts the floor and improves living standards for all workers.  Unions also fight for and are instrumental in making gains for all of society, like the establishment of Medicare, health and safety laws, and fair minimum wages.

But the Harper government has a clear plan to attack unions.  The government has undermined collective bargaining in the federal sector, and emboldened employers to drive down wages and attack pensions in the private sector.  In addition, through legislation like Bill 377, the Harper Conservatives are attempting to rob unions of the ability to use their resources to defend their members and civil society.

So what is the solution?  Canadians need our country’s premiers to denounce this low-wage agenda and stand up for the best interest of working people.

The premiers need to call for an end to the expansion of the TFWP.  They must demand that Ottawa invest in training to bridge the skills gap, so that unemployed Canadians can fill available jobs.

Premiers should also call for improvements to Canada’s EI program as fewer than 40% of unemployed Canadians are currently eligible for benefits.  We need our premiers to challenge the notion that Canada must increase its retirement age to 67. What’s really needed is pension reform that will allow all Canadians to retire in dignity.  And finally, the premiers should recognize and defend the important role unions play in our society and our economy.

The provinces have power.  Our premiers understand that Canada is more than the sum of its parts.

Canadians need our premiers to push back.  And when they do, Canadians, the vast majority of us, will be with them.

The Presidents of the provincial and territorial Federations of Labour:

Rick Clarke, Nova Scotia

Lana Payne, Newfoundland and Labrador

Michel Boudreau, New Brunswick

Carl Pursey, Prince Edward Island

Sid Ryan, Ontario

Kevin Rebeck, Manitoba

Larry Hubich, Saskatchewan

Gil McGowan, Alberta

Jim Sinclair, British Columbia

MaryLou Cherwaty, Northern Territories