Thursday, June 26, 2014

Harper's War On The Middle Class


A shortage of skilled workers is the biggest challenge many Canadian businesses face today, Employment Minister Jason Kenney told a skills summit Wednesday, warning it could also jeopardize Canada's economic development in the future. 
The problem would continue to grow as the population ages, Kenney told the one-day conference, which brought together stakeholders to discuss the labour market, employee training and those under-represented in the labour force. 
Currently 30 per cent of the skilled trade workers in Canada are baby boomers, Kenney said, adding that they will soon retire. 
"They are going to take with them a lifetime of knowledge and skill," he said. 
It's necessary that an "informed national discussion" take place about the condition of Canada's labour market, in order to address future skills gaps, Kenney said. 
"We can acknowledge that we have inadequate labour market information and we need to do a fundamentally better job of getting granular information by region and industry," he said.
Coming from a minister of the government that has dismantled the ability of Statistics Canada to even perform an accurate, useful census of Canadians, that's almost funny - if it wasn't so tragic.

Of course, the Harper Conservatives don't like university educated people as a whole.  There's a reason for this:  people with a liberal arts based education don't typically vote conservative.  So, they've been quietly rejigging the funding for federal research grants (which are an important part of university funding) for several years.

Adjusted for inflation, granting council funding has been in serious decline since 2007-08. Funding for SSHRC has fallen by over 10 per cent in real dollars, while core support for NSERC and CIHR are down 6.4 per cent and 7.5 per cent respectively. Support for the indirect costs of research has declined by 7.9 per cent. Overall federal support for the granting councils is down 7.5 per cent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2007-08. 
There's more.  Not only has the government been quietly reducing the amount of funding it makes available for basic research, they have been changing NSERC's focus to "applied research":
"Collaboration between government, applied researchers and the private sector is vital to building an innovative economy," said Minister Goodyear. "The College and Community Innovation Program supports research collaborations between companies and colleges. It illustrates the importance our government places on creating the conditions for innovation and entrepreneurship to thrive in this country."
What does this have to do with Harper's war on Canada's middle class?  A lot.

First of all, it has fundamentally undermined the core of the concept of University.  If you are taking a degree in disciplines like Engineering, Business or Law, it's great.  You're seeing money poured into your department hand over fist.  If you're interests are in other areas - the social sciences, the liberal arts, not so much.  In fact, the government has been actively discouraging research in these areas and enrolment in those fields of study.  Want to study something that is "politically sensitive" (like gender and sexuality issues for example)? Good luck getting funding.  It isn't going to happen.

The consequence?  First of all, when you hollow out the liberal arts programs, you effectively turn the university into a technical college.  It might be one with the right to confer degrees, but I can guarantee you that the people coming out of those programs are not the well rounded thinkers that should be coming out of universities.  

This suits Harper quite nicely.  He and his "base" have long been critical of "intellectual elites" (you know conservaspeak for people who think about things rather than simply accepting the sound bite du jour).  So turning universities into institutions which turn out highly focused specialists in various domains suits them just fine.  If you don't think too much about any one part of his government, he doesn't seem too bad.  Start to analyze his government in more detail, and the picture rapidly becomes quite horrifying.

Further, by limiting funding to universities, Harper has made the cost of attending so excessive that only the wealthy can really afford it.  So much the better, it reduces the number of people who are likely to be critical of his government (or his ideological successors' governments).

But this is only one facet of Harper's war on Canada's middle class.  Through a series of other actions - mostly by policy fiat - Harper has gone after Canadians even more blatantly.

Front and centre in this has been the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).  This has been used as a tool to undermine the balance of the Canadian labour economy.  Especially since the government started allowing all and sundry to come in under this program.  Historically, the TFWP existed quite explicitly for importing people with skillsets that are unique, rare and virtually impossible to find locally.  Generally, that meant only a relative handful of specialists came into Canada in any given year, certainly not enough to impact the local labour market.  Then the government started to open it up to general labour.  

Run a restaurant?  Having difficulty "finding qualified help"?  Oh, well now you can solve this problem by bringing in a bunch of labour from another country.  The effect?  Employers could suddenly refuse to pay reasonable wages in areas where there is a labour shortage.  (after all, if you lived in the Phillipines for example, how are you going to know that Calgary's cost of living is high and labour market is tight?)  Further, a foreign worker won't know their rights as a worker in Canada, much less are they going to be willing to "rock the boat" when their employer effectively holds the keys to their continued residence in Canada (especially important if they are considering moving to Canada permanently).  

Although the government has recently announced changes to the program, the damage to Canada's labour market has been done.  Many traditional entry level jobs are no longer available to Canadian youth.  There are many stories out there of youth applying at the local Tim Horton's or other fast food restaurant and being told that they are "overqualified".  Another friend of mine who is a plumber's apprentice has been finding job postings for "entry level" positions demanding 3+ years of experience.  This is a posting which is obviously aimed at a TFW coming into Canada who is looking to get into the same trade in Canada that they were doing previously.  

Businesses are running about wringing their hands about the changes to the TFWP.  Oh goodness, how will they keep their doors open?  Well, the short answer is by offering reasonable wages and working conditions that are somewhat better than slavery.  

Regardless, Harper is working his ass off to create an economic environment where the oligarchy has all the marbles.  (a $600bn "dead money" fund lying around - now tell me why these businesses cannot pay a reasonable wage?)  Make no mistake, there is an active war on Canada's middle class and Harper's government is spearheading it.

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