Jobs and a Just Society

A just society should provide everyone with access to a job yet nearly 2 million Canadians can’t find work.

Officially 6.9 per cent of the Canadian workforce is unemployed. But this number rises to 10.3 per cent when those who’ve given up searching for work are included. Counting “discouraged workers”, about 1.8 million Canadians can’t find a job.

Looked at from a different perspective, StatsCan announced last week that there were six job-seekers for every job available in September. Counting “discouraged workers” that number increases 50 percent.

Incredibly, some consider Canada’s unemployment rate a success. In his October throne speech Stephen Harper misleadingly declared that “Canada now has the best job creation record in the G-7 — one million net new jobs since the depths of the recession.”

This isn’t simply self-promotional rhetoric. Policy moves suggest the government is little concerned by the large number of Canadians out of work. Over the past two years they’ve curtailed Employment Insurance benefits, increased the age at which people can receive Old Age Assistance and slashed public-sector employment.

While the government would never say as much publicly, some among the corporate-funded think tanks argue that having over 1 in 10 Canadian workers out of a job is actually too few. “Canada’s unemployment rate dangerously low” was the title of an April Financial Post article by Philip Cross, Research Coordinator for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Hostility to anything approaching full employment reflects the growth of neoconservative policies. Over the last three decades the idea that everyone should have access to a job has largely disappeared from political discourse. But it used to be fairly common.

In the 1963 election Liberal leader Lester Pearson ran on a “Sixty days of decision” platform that included a pledge of full employment and during his time as Prime Minister Canada’s official unemployment rate dropped below 3%. Similarly, the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which was adopted in 1966 and signed by Canada in 1976, called for the right to employment. It recognizes that “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

Instead of focusing on peoples’ right to employment, policymakers today emphasize property rights. In effect, this has meant extending patents, easing safety/environmental regulations on corporations and enabling investors to move to low-wage jurisdictions.

While these policies certainly benefit some, few of us gain our income from owning property. The vast majority of Canadians are wageworkers, their dependents or retired wageworkers. And without a job it’s difficult to get by.

But a job is not only about paying the bills. What one does is generally an important part of a person’s identity and most people want to feel like they are contributing to society. Persistent unemployment can be psychologically damaging for individuals.

It’s also socially damaging. Mass unemployment is a waste of peoples’ energy and ingenuity. Imagine what the 1.8 million Canadians out of work could accomplish if they were mobilized to develop green energy sources or to expand mass transit and childcare services.

But how do we mobilize all this latent human energy. One socially useful way to stimulate employment would be to have the government significantly expand its role in mass transit and childcare. Another would be to push Corporate Canada, which is sitting on over $575 billion in cash, to invest in renewable energy.

It’s time to rekindle the idea that all adults have the right to a job. There are 1.8 million Canadians waiting to better contribute to their society.

Yves Engler is co-author of the recently released New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite, a rewriting of the original designed to spark debate about a new direction for the Left and union movement. For more information go to www.newcommuneist.com. Read other articles by Yves, or visit Yves's website.