Shared benefit

Yesterday the Toronto Star's Joe Fiorito wrote about the cost of poverty from the perspective of money manager Marc Hamel speaking "at a recent conference in Halton region, where changes to provincial welfare rates were up for discussion." Here are some of the quotes from Marc Hamel:
“If we could help this 20 per cent with skill training and higher education, the income gain for Ontario would be $3.2 billion a year.”

He puts the total cost of child poverty in Ontario at anywhere between $4.6 billion and $5.9 billion a year. And then he talked about lost opportunity.

“If we were able to increase the income and participation of the lowest quintile of income earners, and raise their incomes to the second quintile, the benefit to the Ontario economy would be over $16 billion a year.”

He also noted that, if we did so, there would be an increase in tax revenues of $4 billion.

But here’s the real money quote: “In total, poverty costs the residents of Ontario a staggering $32 billion to $38 billion a year — the equivalent of over 5 per cent of provincial GDP.”
I do believe that Marc Hamel's heart is in the right place and that he believes that these economic arguments will foster positive action towards poverty reduction and increasing income equality.

We in the literacy field know better. We have our literacy equals GDP champions in Craig Alexander and Frank McKenna at the TD Financial Group and Scott Murray et al at the Canadian Council on Learning and have been listening to the higher literacy rates equal higher GDP arguments for over a decade now. During that time have seen cuts to literacy programming and the reduction of diversity and accessibility in publicly funded adult learning. We have also seen the  National Literacy Secretariat and it's library of research replaced by the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills and a library of skills definitions, tools and assessments.

The problem with these shared benefit arguments for poverty reduction is that if I have a personal interest in someone else's income equality, I soon start to demand proof - for every investment in "skill training and higher education" I want to see a return. I start demanding standardization so I can understand and report outcomes - not just learning outcomes but economic ones - and in so doing I start to replace the notion of common good with that of total good.
Chris Priestley
The Independent
April 28, 1997

As John Milbank, in his article Thatcher's perverse victory and the prospect of an ethical economy, says:
A capitalist economy, as Stefano Zamagni explains, does not pursue the common good, but "the total good" - that is, the sum total of individual utilitarian happiness in the aggregate, people counted one by one, not in their real relationships. But an abstract sum means a sum of numbers, the total wealth of a community, which may accrue to some more than to others. Hence the British GDP is evidently not the common good of the British people.
David Cameron, the current Conservative Prime Minister of England agrees.
In David Cameron's early days as Conservative leader, when the GDP numbers still pointed to an impressive track record for Labour, he told a conference: "It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on 'GWB' – general well-being." 
Bhutan has been considering Gross National Happiness a valid indicator of progress since 1972 and did their first survey in 2010.
The concept of GNH has often been explained by its four pillars: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. Lately the four pillars have been further classified into nine domains in order to create widespread understanding of GNH and to reflect the holistic range of GNH values. The nine domains are: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. The domains represents each of the components of wellbeing of the Bhutanese people, and the term ‘wellbeing’ here refers to fulfilling conditions of a ‘good life’ as per the values and principles laid down by the concept of Gross National Happiness.
Income equality and other sorts of equality are probably not going to be found in neo-liberal shared benefit solutions but in redefining shared benefit in terms of common good rather than that of total good. I think that state redistribution mechanisms are necessary to ensure universality, accessibility and oversight and a legally-binding, mutual accountability contract for social benefit is long overdue.
And rather than relying primarily on state redistribution, we need to forge an economy that operates justly and fairly in the first place - both through the internal ethos of firms and professional associations, and through a new legal framework which demands that every business deliver social benefit as well as reasonable profit.

Banking skills

A discussion about the Temporary Foreign Worker program blew up my Twitter feed over the weekend. It has been discussed on this blog here and here.

As you probably already know, on Friday the CBC reported that the Royal Bank of Canada is replacing 45 workers with workers from "a multinational outsourcing firm from India – iGATE Corp. – which has a contract with the bank to provide IT services."

People across the political spectrum reacted with outrage and disgust.

Royal Bank of Canada CEO, Gordon Nixon, explained to RBC staff that hiring a company to replace them with lower-paid workers is different than doing it himself and Zabeen Hirji, Chief Human Resources Officer for RBC, tried to do the same for a wider audience.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley expressed her dismay and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney suggested that any company that was "playing some kind of a shell game, that is not consistent with the rules... should have the book thrown at them” (see CBC story above).

But Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour obtained a government list of more than 4,000 companies given approval to hire temporary foreign workers last year, many in the service industry.
 "You look down this list and what you see is McDonald's, Tim Hortons, and Subway. This list goes on. It stretches the bounds of credibility that all of these employers have been using temporary foreign workers to hire skilled workers."

Armine Yalnizyan from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives tweeted this StatsCan chart about the growth in the use of temporary foreign workers in Canada since 2006:

and participated in a conversation about the Temporary Foreign Worker program with Ron Babin on CBC's The Current.

 Erin Weir in the Globe and Mail reports that:
Since 2008, the number of temporary foreign workers has increased by 24,000 or 60 per cent in Toronto, 18,000 or 70 per cent in Quebec, and 5,000 or 80 per cent in the Atlantic provinces. Together, these regions of high unemployment account for most of the post-recession increase in Canada’s temporary foreign work force. With the exception of Toronto as well as Newfoundland and Labrador, wages in these regions are below the national average.
So what does this story and the growth of this program mean for us in the literacy field?

Maybe this:
The biggest side effect of the rapid growth of the program might be eroded skills and training, said David Green, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia, who believes the program may act as a disincentive for companies to offer on-the-job training, and for workers to ensure their skills are current.

“The most concerning thing has to be the implications for training,” he said. “The long-run implications are bad because we’re going to have a generation of young people who are looking at something that makes it harder for them to get the skills they need to get.”
Foreign workers program seen growing too big, too fast by Tavia Grant
The Globe and Mail, Published Monday, Apr. 08 2013, 7:00 PM EDT
"Canadian workers are being displaced, training is being ignored and the TFW program is becoming the first choice rather than a tool of last resort," said the Alberta Federation of Labour’s [Gil] McGowan.

Of course it also has implications about what kind of working conditions we might be training people for. 
The government’s policy of allowing employers to pay temporary foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than the prevailing wage obviously undercuts prevailing wages. Because temporary foreign workers are beholden to their employers, they have little ability to assert their workplace rights or negotiate wage improvements.

An econometric study based on data through 2007 published last year in Canadian Public Policy concludes, “The expansion [of the Temporary Foreign Worker program] in Canada to all low-skill occupations without limit has had an adverse effect on the Canadian labour market.” There is reason to fear that adding more vulnerable workers to weak labour markets since 2008 has further worsened unemployment and undermined wages.
It's not just RBC. The foreign-worker program needs reining in by Erin Weir
The Globe and Mail, Published Tuesday, Apr. 09 2013

I find it encouraging that people are outraged about this and everyone is talking about the implications of paying certain classes of workers less than others and how outsourcing, offshoring and rural sourcing, nearsourcing etc., impact employment rates, the employability of certain workers and the working conditions for all groups of workers. Perhaps this is one of those watershed moments that wakes people up to a practice that has been hurting us all for a long time. It seems to make many people open to talking about worker protections in a way that has been rare in some circles lately. So maybe a little crack has opened up. 

As Erin Weir writes
RBC provides a particularly compelling example of why the Temporary Foreign Worker Program must be reined in. It should be limited to areas with demonstrable skill shortages.

Before importing temporary labour, employers should have to meet a much higher burden of proof that they cannot find Canadian workers. Those temporary foreign workers who are admitted should have a clear path to permanent residency and citizenship, so that they can fully contribute to our economy and exercise the same workplace rights as other Canadians.
Here is hoping...