Snakes and Ladders

Snakes and Ladders*
Have you been following the Temporary Foreign Workers boondoggle?

This story has been making headlines on and off for over a year now and blew up again last week.

Six other things related to this file happened this month.

  1. We were told that some employers prefer temporary foreign workers even though they are more expensive to employ because foreign workers have a better work ethic. For example:
    "They’re not going to take the day off because they have to take their dog to the vet. They’re going to show up to work on time, they're going to work a full week without disappearing," -- Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business
  2. We learned that some employers get around the temporary foreign worker regulations by hiring Irish youth through the International Experience Canada program.
    The International Experience Canada visa allows anyone aged 18-35 from 32 countries party to a bilateral youth exchange agreement with Canada to work in the country for up to two years without a Labour Market Opinion. Most participants come from Europe and Australia.

    Under most worker immigration streams, employers are required to first post the job in Canada for a reasonable length of time. They must then submit proof they have done so to Employment and Social Development Canada, which assesses the impact hiring that worker would have on the Canadian labour market. A positive labour market opinion, or LMO, is required for most foreign workers before Citizenship and Immigration Canada will issue a visa.

    The International Experience class is exempt from that requirement because it involves quotas based on reciprocal agreements with other countries.
  3.  We heard about a report by the C.D. Howe Institute that
    is harshly critical of the federal government’s controversial temporary foreign workers program, saying it has spurred a higher unemployment rate in western Canada.

    The study says changes to the program made between 2002 and 2013 made it easier for employers to hire temporary foreign workers and consequently contributed to a hike in the joblessness rate in Alberta and B.C.
  4. We learned that the Canadian government is changing the Expression of Interest program in a way similar to the changes they made to the Temporary Foreign Worker program. The updated program is called Express Entry and will offer "express entry" to qualified immigrants starting in 2015 as a way to help fill open jobs for which there are no available Canadian workers. This program, like the Job Grant Program, will allow employers to set policy.
    Immigration Minister Chris Alexander says the program will allow "a swifter path to Canada that will select immigrants based on the skills and attributes that Canada needs based on those identified by government but also by employers" (emphasis mine).
  5. We learned that Statistics Canada collected data about skills and work that could not be analyzed or reported because of a funding shortage leaving some, us among them, to wonder what information the government can contribute when setting criteria for programs that fast track workers to skills deprived regions and sectors.
    A survey of 25,000 employers that cost $4.6-million and was commissioned by the federal government could shed light on the extent of the country's skills gap, but it has sat idle for two years due to lack of funding to make it public.

    In 2011, Employment and Social Development Canada – then known as HRSDC – contracted Statistics Canada to do a new survey of 25,000 employers on topics such as workplace demographics and future skills shortages. Firms were asked about whether they used temporary foreign workers, hired for any "green jobs," and which positions were toughest to fill and why.
    Statscan collected the surveys over the first three months of 2012, but the funding ended there, before the data could be analyzed. Business and education experts have been eager to see the results, but even as Employment Minister Jason Kenney has been giving speeches saying "we must do a much better job" collecting detailed labour market information to help steer Canada's economy in a better direction, budget resources to do so have shrunk.
    Which brings to mind the story from March about how the government of Canada  is reduced to using data from Kijiji to develop its job report because it is no longer collecting data of its own.
    “Kijiji’s a great place to sell a bike, but this is no way to run an economy,” said NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen after Question Period. 
    The reaction followed a Globe and Mail report that revealed a key factor as to why job-vacancy data released by Finance Canada this year on budget day has been out of sync with other sources.
  6. Statistics Canada was able to report on data that shows the gap between the earnings of a college or university degree graduate and what someone with a high school diploma makes is narrowing.
    According to the data agency, high school grads are making wage gains, while the earnings of holders of a post-secondary school degree are staying flat — and in the case of young men, even decreasing.
    This mirrors data from the US that shows that a degree only made a significant difference if it was from an Ivy League school pointing to the value of network over schoolwork.
So is this important to literacy workers and learners?

I think it is if you are doing literacy work or learning in a jurisdiction like ours (Ontario) where literacy is an employment program.

Literacy/employment programs often, either implicitly or explicitly, make the promise that education leads to more work, better work and better pay. Funders request and literacy workers pledge a return on investment that includes more people working more productively - and by productively they mean compliant to workplace norms and less dependent on the social safety net.

We have known for a long time that this is a difficult promise to keep in times of shrinking economies. Literacy programmers have no control over the availability of jobs or the forces of discrimination that exclude literacy learners from the labour market.

The above list of six shows some of the government policies that are also having impacts on the availability of paid work in general and, more specifically, who gets hired to do that paid work.

How can we make rational economic choices if the data upon which we are basing those choices is unreliable?

If employers view foreign trained workers as having a better work ethic, do literacy programs respond by supporting learners to emulate this work ethic or by challenging these employers on their definition of what is ethical at work?

What is a rational choice and what is an ethical response in these times? Are these employers acting in ways that are ethical or rational? How can literacy programs support workers and learners who want to act ethically and rationally?

Somewhere on the internet people were debating about whether it is ethical to ask people living in poverty to boycott companies renown for the poor treatment of workers (see Walmart) or sourcing consumer goods from places renown for the same (see Dollarama) if these are the only places they can afford to shop.

My response is that I don't shun people who shop at these places but I do not respect their choice. This is not just an ethical response. I do not think it is a rational economic choice for poor or middle income people to shop at places that work to depress wages and lower employment standards globally. The degradation of working conditions hurts the people who shop there the most.

I am still working on the question of how to support literacy workers and learners navigate this neo-liberal game of snakes and ladders. I think we should start working on a curriculum but that is probably just me.


McDonald's accused of favouring foreign workers (CBC)

Temporary foreign workers have better work ethic, some employers believe (CBC)

Ottawa doubles number of Irish workers allowed on two-year visas (Vancouver Sun)

Temporary foreign workers program has boosted joblessness, C.D. Howe report says (Toronto Star)

The "Are You on Hillary's Hit List?" Gabfest (Slate) - the section on the missing middle class at 19:55 and what "education" gets you good pay at 35:44
Not quoted here but relevant:
Tories' budget, Statscan at odds over number of vacant jobs (Globe and Mail)

*Snakes and Ladders of 1901 provides an old-fashioned moral view. Players slide down the snakes of anger, pride, depravity and vanity while they climb the ladders of forgiveness, penitence, pity and faith.

National Day of Mourning

Today is the National Day of Mourning for workers killed on the job.

In 2013, the WSIB says that 243 workers died and that there were 232,249 reported injuries. In the past 25 days alone, as we close in on the Day of Mourning, three more workers have died at Vale’s Copper Cliff smelter in Sudbury, a construction site in Ottawa and a plastics plant in Vaughan. — Ontario Federation of Labour Press Release

'There is no bad job, the only bad job is not having a job.'  — Finance Minister Jim Flaherty

Ontario Federation of Labour Day of Mourning Fact Sheet (PDF)

Dear Leader

Around here we like to celebrate how people use their literacy skills in creative ways.

We also talk about whether or not literacy workers have to speak the language of economists and technocrats in order to get policy makers to understand the complexities of literacy work and literacy learning.

In her satirical letter to the Canadian Revenue Agency where she talks to the Harper Government the way the Harper Government talks to the people of Canada, Susan Delacourt takes on the language of the technocrats.

This letter might not make much sense to those outside Canada but to those of us living in Harperville, much of this will ring true. I have copied the letter below and added some links so that people outside Harperville can understand life here. To read the full article on the Toronto Star, click here.

Dear Canadian Revenue Agency:

Enclosed please find my income-tax file for 2013 or, as I like to call it, my “economic action plan.”

Apologies in advance for errors in calculation, mistaken ambitions about how much I’m really in debt or misunderstandings with regard to the Income Tax Act. The fact is, I’m an ordinary Canadian, and it’s only “experts” and “bureaucrats” who really care about this complicated business of taxes and deductions. Hey, this is a democracy, and I’m free to disagree with what the Ottawa “elites” insist I owe this year, right?

I should also say at the outset that I haven’t provided all the details of my expenses and income, because, frankly, the government’s curiosity about my financial life seems a little, well, intrusive. Thanks, by the way, for relieving me of the task of filling out census forms. I look forward to the day when I don’t have to fill out these tax forms either.

As for records, I regret to inform you that I no longer keep detailed historical archives, thanks to cost-cutting here at home and the fact that we live in the Internet age and a paperless society. I could maybe Google something for you. I have, however, included some unrelated information you didn’t request in this income-tax file — some old parking tickets, a first-aid certificate I earned in the summer and the letter I sent out to friends and family with the annual Christmas cards. I call this my “omnibus” approach to filing income taxes: throw everything in one big envelope and get it rubber-stamped by the authorities in as little time possible.

Needless to say, as with your own omnibus budget legislation, no one actually has to read everything that’s in the envelope I sent you and, in fact, I’ll insist on some time allocation if anyone is caught lingering over details. We can let the courts sort things out down the road (and then blame them for being “activist.”)

I’ve also sent you some photos of my pets and people I’ve met on my travels in 2013. I get a lot of those from the Prime Minister’s website and emails, and thought that since you obviously like them I’d send you some of mine in return.

Given your preoccupation with all things financial, you may especially appreciate the “money shots,” as I believe they’re called. If you would like more “exclusive” access to my travel photos, just send me your email address and co-ordinates, and I’ll sign you up for my special friends-only newsletter.

Speaking of friends and money, I’m totally confused about how to report a big cheque I received this year from a guy at work, to help me pay what I owed you. Now that I think of it, I may have been told not to mention it to you. Since I have revealed the existence of this cheque, however, I’ll call it a gift to my fellow taxpayers and list it as a charitable contribution to Canada, eligible for appropriate deductions. There. You’re welcome. That’s settled. Let’s move on.

Should you have any questions about my personal economic action plan, feel free to file an access-to-information request with my associates, though I should warn you it may take several years to process or even acknowledge. You may also want to try to ask me directly at one of my rare Canadian Revenue Agency Availability Sessions, for accredited photographers only. I also have a newsfeed I call 24-7, in which you can learn everything about me I choose to tell you.

In case of a dispute over my taxes or personal accountability, I can offer you several somewhat helpful replies in advance. 1. “I’ve been perfectly clear.” 2. “I’m disappointed in the people who work for me.” 3. “Look over there! Justin Trudeau just said something.”
All the best for the next tax year,

Your hard-working taxpayer.

Meritocratic Extremism

On Friday Carol Goar, amidst the accolades for the surprisingly departed Jim Flaherty (Minister of Finance from 2006-2014), wrote about the Conservative policies that are working to stop young people from working.
Even young people Ottawa counts as “employed” are struggling. Almost half work part-time and don’t earn enough to live on. They’re not using the skills they acquired at great personal expense. Their contracts may or may not be renewed. (emphasis mine)
She cites changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program and Employment Insurance, federally induced tuition fee hikes and the fact that employers are no longer held responsible for job training as factors that exacerbate the ways that globalization, outsourcing and recessions make jobs hard to come by.

Why do Conservatives hate youth? Cynically one could posit that it is because youth don't vote (unless, of course, you tell them they can't) so there is no return on investment in keeping youth happy. The theory is that it makes more sense for Conservatives to keep the people who brought them to the dance - employers, bankers, corporate tycoons - happiest. And if that means throwing non-voting,Tory-hating youth under the bus, so be it.

But what about all the ways that youth are expected to support the huge wave of baby boomers who are crashing into retirement? If the youth aren't working, who is going to pay for the medical treatments for all the rich old people who do vote Conservative? Could this Conservative government be that short sighted?

We know that in a pander for votes they started this administration willing to trade short term gain for long term pain, so maybe the theory is true. (More here.)

Whatever the reason, Conservative policies are working to increase income inequality and to shift the balance of who is paying for the social contract.

Then I read this book review about Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty's theory is that income inequality, created and supported by Conservative policies, is going to be the thing that kills capitalism. So much for return on investment.

Piketty seems to have taken over Milton Friedman's supremacy in the economic discourse, and hooray for that. It will take the current Conservatives, forged in the Calgary School, a while to catch up but perhaps other political parties will take note.

That left-wing kook, Mark Carney, has long lamented the fact that tax breaks do not encourage capital owners to invest those savings into enterprises that create jobs.

In his book, Piketty describes the reasons why. The short story is that we are at the point in the cycle of capitalism where you get richer owning stuff than building stuff.
Anyone with the capacity to own in an era when the returns exceed those of wages and output will quickly become disproportionately and progressively richer. ... Our companies and our rich don't need to back frontier innovation or even invest to produce: they just need to harvest their returns and tax breaks, tax shelters and compound interest will do the rest.

Capitalist dynamism is undermined, but other forces join to wreck the system. Piketty notes that the rich are effective at protecting their wealth from taxation and that progressively the proportion of the total tax burden shouldered by those on middle incomes has risen. ...

As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don't have the wherewithal to sustain them.

Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services. Meanwhile, the rich get ever richer and more detached from the societies of which they are part: not by merit or hard work, but simply because they are lucky enough to be in command of capital receiving higher returns than wages over time.

There is a glimmer of hope here. Piketty claims that a collective action will fill the innovation gap.
The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war.
Let's hope we don't have to go to war but that movements such as Occupy and Idle No More continue to reshape the mainstream conversation and that politicians start proposing policies that will reshape capitalism.

The leader of the federal Liberal party refutes claims that he is one of those "more detached" rich who benefits from inherited rather than merited success,
"I've heard people are struggling and I've talked a lot about the kinds of solutions we need," he said. "I'm going to continue to work hard on that,"
but he did just name his most recent child Hadrian so maybe not :)

Piketty says that an economist's job is to make things that seem inconceivable conceivable.

Hugh Segal has been a lone voice in Canadian politics proposing basic income but that idea is gaining currency worldwide as a way to alleviate poverty AND to save capitalism.

In Switzerland, the government and business leaders scared voters into rejecting the wage cap but perhaps this idea will take hold somewhere soon as people realize that the threat of businesses leaving your jurisdiction because of legislated restrictions on their contributions to the public good is really no threat at all.

Onward to the inconceivable.

Further reading:

A Guardian interview with Thomas Piketty posted after I wrote this is here.

When Jim Flaherty resigned as Finance Minister, Maclean's posted some charts that showed some things that happened during his tenure.

Paul Krugman also wrote a review of the book, Why We’re in a New Gilded Age, and an opinion piece, The Piketty Panic.

Thomas Piketty's Capital: everything you need to know about the surprise bestseller (Guardian)


True or False: Learning is a becoming.

This week we have read a lot of stuff by people for whom the answer is to the above is "false."

Here is something for the rest of us:

Kurt Vonnegut is has been one of the beloveds for me since I was a high school student and the love and respect he had for these students and what he wrote in his letter is probably why.

When I was in Grade 11, I went to the head of the English Department because I was disgruntled with my English teacher and the curriculum. My argument was that, as English was the only thing I was any good at in high school, I deserved better. The head of the English department thought that as I was so good at English anyway, maybe I could take the opportunity to learn a little more about patience and compassion. He refused my transfer request and gave me five Kurt Vonnegut novels and two by Richard Brautigan to compensate for the fact that I felt I was spinning my wheels in English class. That was probably my best day in high school. The English Head probably helped make me a better person, Richard Brautigan made the whole world look different and in Kurt Vonnegut I found an ally. Reading those novels got me through Grade 11 and beyond. I carry Kurt Vonnegut wisdom with me everywhere I go. And now a whole other group of high school students can do that too.

See the letter here: