Federation Presidents: Premiers should fight back against Ottawa’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 federation of labour leaders, representing over three million workers from coast to coast to coast, we are calling on the premiers to stand with the workers of Canada against this cheap labour strategy.

Canada's premiers touched on some of these issues when they met in Halifax last week at the Council of the Federation. We think it is critical that the following issues be front and centre when they come together this fall to talk about the economy.

Foreign Workers: The TFWP is not immigration. It's exploitation. These workers, many of whom are desperately 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 per cent less than their Canadian co-workers is a blatant example of their 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 or with retirement security. It is 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 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 what is in the best interest of working people.

When the premiers meet this fall to discuss the economy, we believe the labour market ought to be front and centre in that discussion. They must denounce the exploitive expansion of the TFWP. They must collectively demand that Ottawa invest more 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 per cent 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, such as improving and enhancing CPP. 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.

Halifax Chronical Herald, 2012 July 26

Submitted by 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.

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