Aug. 08, 2012 - Issue #877: Corb Your Enthusiasm
More than one way to count
Last week, while accusing the provincial government of using "creative" math to distort projections of a looming labour shortage, Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan joined his counterparts from nine other provinces and territories to co-author an op-ed which ran in a number of publications across the country. In it, the labour leaders alleged a four-pronged scheme orchestrated by the federal Conservatives to drive down Canadian workers' wages while eroding the ability of unions to bargain on their behalf for better working conditions and pay.
"Working closely with the Harper government, low-wage lobbyists like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and non-union construction groups like the Merit Contractors Association have been pressuring the government to use creative math to manufacture a crisis," McGowan said in a press release. The crisis is then being used to justify policies that shortchange hardworking Canadians on wages and benefits, McGowan asserted.
The AFL takes issue with the way the province calculates and communicates predictions about labour force supply and demand. Since 2009, Alberta has used a "growth in demand/growth in supply" labour force projection model with which the provincial government predicts a potential labour shortage as high as 114 000 workers over the next 10 years.
A key problem with this approach, says the AFL, is its cumulative approach to counting unfilled jobs. In this model, a job that remains unfilled over 10 years becomes 10 unfilled jobs. Organized labour thinks government and industry are both counting on the public not bothering to do the arithmetic.
Using a more straightforward supply minus demand formula—like that used in British Columbia and Saskatchewan—the AFL recalculated the government's projections and found that labour supply in Alberta will actually outpace demand for the next decade. This year's projected shortage of 6397 workers, for example, could be easily met through inter-provincial migration.
"Why did Alberta change the way it calculates a labour shortage?" asks McGowan. "It's likely the result of pressure from employers who have discovered that the notion of a massive labour shortage can be used as an effective political tool to win policies that drive down wages, such as expanding the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program."
Indeed, the Alberta Coalition for Action on Labour (ACAL)—an organization formed last spring to speak on behalf of 19 members including the Alberta Chambers of Commerce, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Merit Contractors' Association and Canadian Federation of Independent Business—was quick to sieze upon the higher figure. An ACAL press release issued in March stated, "the Alberta government is forecasting there will be 114 000 more jobs than people to fill them in coming years, a trend which is increasingly evident across Western Canada."
The group went on to state, "what's needed now is the recognition that we must aggressively recruit in international labour markets. We will be more successful in this effort if the federal and provincial governments make the necessary changes to help employers gain access to the human resources we need."
The 114 000 figure was "economics gobbledeegook intended to mislead the public about the actual state of the labour market," says McGowan, who acknowledges there might be a skills shortage in some particular trades but contends a general labour shortage prediction is overblown.
Misleading or not, the federal government leapt at the bait. Last month, when the Conservatives announced the expansion of a TFW program which enabled Alberta employers to ignore previous steps they had to take before bringing in offshore labour, Employment and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney cited Alberta's "acute labour shortage." While the original pilot program allowed employers to hire offshore steamfitter/pipefitters with no effort to recruit or train Canadians first, the list has been expanded to include welders, heavy duty equipment mechanics, ironworkers, millwrights and industrial mechanics, carpenters and estimators.
Rather than expanding the TFW program, McGowan wants the provincial government to work with the federal government to better connect unemployed Canadians in other regions to jobs in Alberta. "We should be talking about things like making relocation allowance part of the EI program," he says. With 1.3 million Canadians unemployed, he wonders why is offshore labour is the first solution our governments turn to when faced with a labour shortage, real or imagined.
Along with the relaxation on TFW admittance, the labour leaders say changes to Employment Insurance and efforts to increase the country's retirement age are evidence the Conservative government pose a real threat to Canadian workers.
Following the Prime Minister's Office announcement that Harper won't be accepting an invitation to attend a national meeting on the economy this fall, the labour leaders called upon the provincial premiers to reject the Harper government's strategy. They wrote, "Canadians need our country's premiers to denounce this low-wage agenda and stand up for the best interests of working people."
Provincial leaders will be meeting this November in Halifax to discuss the world economy but an exact agenda has yet to be crafted.
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