So there is some fuss on social media about Prime Minister Trudeau’s government providing $50 million to help temporary foreign workers to self-isolate. As iPolitics explains, “Ottawa is providing $50 million to farmers, fish harvesters and other food production and processing employers to cover the costs of ensuring workers arriving from abroad properly self-isolate for the mandatory 14-day period … [because] … “Temporary foreign workers have long been key to our food supply,” Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said in a prepared statement.‘
Predictably, “Conservative employment critic Dan Albas said Ottawa shouldn’t use government dollars to “subsidize” the use of foreign workers … [he admitted that] … “there may be certain circumstances where employers require assistance to facilitate this … [but, he said] … the government must not disadvantage Canadians from getting these jobs by using taxpayer dollars to subsidize foreign workers.”“
The problem, of course, is that those jobs are temporary, they are, creatively, poorly paid and they are damned hard, too. Most Canadians don’t want to do that kind of work for that kind of money, especially since many picking/harvesting jobs don’t last long enough to qualify for EI.
We have imported labour for years. There are some jobs, live-in caregivers for elderly or disabled Canadians for example, that are always hard to fill, especially when the salaries are at about minimum wage level. Thankfully, for many families, educated, reliable and caring women, often from the Philippines, were happy to take the jobs, especially when they could qualify to stay in Canada after a few years. But the system was exploited, too. I remember, a few years ago, that a major fast-food franchisee was using “temporary” foreign works to fill almost all of his positions. Those fast-food jobs, ‘Mac-jobs,’ are great for kids ~ the pay is minimum wage but they get money and they learn important life-skills kike being clean and tidy and showing up on time. But school kids can only work when school is nor in session so how does a fast-food store operate from 7:00AM until 5:00 PM? Some can hire adults but one particular owner couldn’t find enough willing day workers so he got approval to hire some foreign workers ~ Filipinas as it happened. They were excellent workers and soon he was hiring fewer and fewer local people, not even school-kids. There was outrage, of course, but he was making a sensible business decision, wasn’t he?
Our social safety net makes it difficult to find Canadians who are willing to do some jobs. Sometimes even somewhat stingy social welfare programme can seem like better alternatives than some jobs. There’s something wrong with that, a job, any job, even backbreaking labour in the hot sun or a job that might require one to change an old person’s dirty diaper ought to be “better” than social assistance. This is not, it must be noted, not a uniquely Canadian problem. As The Guardian reports, the British are having exactly the same problem.
Does that mean social assistance is too generous?
No. What it does mean is that a system that requires people to make a choice between, for example, a part-time or temporary job and longer-term support is ineffective and poorly designed. We have understood, for over a century, ever since Otto von Bismarck in 1881, that society can and should help those who, through no fault of their own, cannot support themselves at a barely adequate level. We also understand that social services ought to be provided on a utilitarian basis ~ the greatest good for the greatest number ~ which means that we recognize that the social safety net will never be 100% effective; there ill always be a few people who, for a variety of reasons (mental illness, drugs, alcohol, etc) some being ‘self-inflicted wounds,’ do not wish or are not able to to be helped. But, everything I have heard and read suggests that most people in need want help … most of them want a job. But once they get help, once they are are ‘clients’ of the various government (bureaucratic) social service agencies they find that work is a problem because it is very often temporary and low paid.
Jobs that are temporary still have “value” to both the employer and employee. Jobs that are poorly paid reflect the “value” that they add to a product or service. But, a job is still the very best social programme. The question becomes: how can we get Canadians in need to take low paid, sometimes temporary jobs without ending up worse off than they are on social assistance? This is a dilemma for politicians at all levels; mainly, in Canada, social assistance is a provincial responsibility but both municipal and federal politicians can shape and reshape programmes.
It is time, I believe, for Conservatives and their allies …
… to work in concert and develop a new, ‘big idea‘ which, I think, should aim to reform the social service landscape, making it easier for Canadians to take low-paid, part-time, temporary jobs without losing their access to all of their benefits. The system should start, at both the federal and provincial levels, with Milton Friedman’s idea of a negative income tax. Any conservative who disagrees with Friedman is most likely a closet socialist. At the provincial and local levels, conservative leaders should implement or press for reforms that allow Canadians to access a mixed system of work and welfare so that a person can take temporary, part-time or even full-time employment and still have their income ‘topped up until it reaches a level of income that governments (the plural matters) agree is (perhaps just barely) adequate. In other words, poor people should not be penalized, financially, for working.
I’m neither an economist nor a social policy expert. I understand, as explained by the MIT’s Sloan School, link above, that there are a lot of complex questions about how to implement a negative income tax. Equally, there are many serious political impediments to meddling with any social programme. But those are the sorts of questions that Conservatives (and conservatives) should be asking, in public, and they are the sorts of political issues that they should be debating in multi-level (national, provincial, local) conferences and study groups. And those debates and discussions should be well publicized so that Canadians know that at last one party has their best interests in mind.
A thorough, multi-tiered reform of Canada’s social welfare programmes, by all levels of government, coupled with a negative income tax should aim to:
- Save money for every single taxpayer by at least restraining and, preferably, actually reducing bureaucracy;
- Allow employers to, more easily, recruit and hire Canadians for temporary jobs and, thereby, reduce the need for some temporary foreign workers; and
- Make it beneficial for Canadians to take on low-paid, part-time and temporary jobs without losing total access to social assistance benefits ~ in fact, a good, well designed, Conservative programme should reward those who work over those who chose to just collect benefits.
The Liberals ran successfully on a few big ideas in 2015. I think the Conservatives need one or two for the next election and I believe that, despite its complexity, and despite the fact that it crosses jurisdictional boundaries, reform of the social assistance regimes might be one of them. If the next Conservative leader can get one or two key provincial premiers onside then it might be a winner.
Other potential Conservative big ideas might include developing the Arctic, abolishing the Indian Act and replacing it with a new, democratic and accountable order of government and reforming the Canada Health Act to give provinces greater freedom.