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Business journalists go on the attack; demonize Atlantic seasonal workers

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

By Nick Fillmore

National business journalists and columnists have bought into Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s demeaning view that folks in the Atlantic region are backward and have a defeatist attitude.  Framed in contemptuous language, they’re promoting untested economic ideas that, if adopted, would seriously damage the economy – and the people – of the region.    

Apparently it wasn’t enough for elite business journalists to applaud how Harper has made life far more difficult for many already struggling seasonal workers by cracking down on employment Insurance (EI). They are advocating the elimination of EI for all 102,000 seasonal workers, including recipients on training programs – people who are employed in the fishery, forestry, agriculture and tourism industries, etc.

 “. . . there is no justification, in logic or in economics, for seasonal EI,” wrote Globe and Mail contributor and former Nova Scotia restaurateur Brian Lee Crowley, “and the dogged pursuit of this policy flies in the face of the interests of Canada and people who become trapped in the cycle of working seasonally and then receiving EI benefits while unemployed.” 

In this era of right-wing ideology, business writers target just about anything that doesn’t fit into their mean-spirited view of what are good economics. Editors fail to question absurd ideas, and it seems to be okay if journalists and pundits are loose and fast with the facts.

Globe and Mail journalist Sean Silcoff, writing about the Atlantic region and EI, is wrong on two counts when he claims to quote the Auditor General as saying “the federal government needs to do more to collect the $300-million or so it overpays in employment insurance every year, much of it to claimants who misrepresented themselves or committed outright fraud.” Wrong. The $300-million is not government money. The EI system is funded by contributions from employers and employees. The government has not contributed to the fund since 1990. 

Second, it is incorrect, and harmful to the people of the Atlantic region, to say that “much” of the overpayment went to cheaters. “It is mostly automation induced error, according to the Service Canada backroom staff that I spoke to”, Canadian Labour Congress economist Angella MacEwen told me in an e-mail. “They say that increased reliance on automation has led to an increase in errors calculating benefit levels and duration. Because of staff cutbacks, most of these errors are only caught when integrity checks are done against tax information from the business/individual.”

Vancouver journalist got it wrong

Writing in the The Vancouver Sun, Barbara Yaffe, who used to be Globe and Mail correspondent in the Maritimes, also got it wrong:  “Last year, according to Human Resources, integrity officers found $128.7 million in fraudulent EI claims. In addition, they identified $330 million in EI overpayments the department is now trying to recoup. That reflects a whole lot of cheating - not a surprise, human nature being what it is.”

Even though Human Resources Minister Diane Finley must have known that all the talk about so much fraud was greatly exaggerated, she still pushed the point in the House: “There’s still hundreds of millions of dollars of potential fraud out there,” she said. “The key is to . . . root out the fraud that’s within the system so that EI remains affordable for those who play by the rules.”

Some business journalists are bothered that seasonal workers in the Atlantic provinces pay small amounts into EI but receive considerably more in return when there’s no work.  

The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker, president of Ipsos Reid Public Affairs, say in their book, The Big Shift, that seasonal workers in Atlantic Canada are economic illiterates because they feel they are entitled to receive more than they pay into the EI fund. Bricker interviewed EI-recipient focus groups in the region, asking them if it was fair that someone in Oakville worked hard and received only a couple of weeks of vacation while paying into the fund, while Atlantic recipients receive larger amounts.

“‘Do you think it’s fair that they are asked to pay for somebody down here who collects every year?’” asked Bricker. “For a few moments, the members of the group would look down at the floor. But invariably, someone would pipe up with something like: ‘That’s what it means to be a Canadian. Those who can afford to pay, pay, and those who need the benefit collect it. That’s the Canadian way.’ Karl Marx couldn’t have put it any better”, they wrote.

“The day will soon come when the Oakville worker downs tools when it comes to supporting P.E.I. fishers. Already rebellion is in the air,” wrote Ibbitson and Bricker. I’m unaware of any likely rebellion of workers concerning sharing EI payments with other workers.  

Governments stole $57-billion from EI account

None of the recent articles mention that past governments “stole” $57-billion from the EI account, which was created from contributions by workers and business. The money was put it into general government revenues to help pay down the debt and support other government programs. As of March 2012 – after much government fiddling – the account had a deficit of $7.9 billion.

The business journalism set know very little about rural and seaside life in Atlantic Canada. It is unlikely that any of them – with the possible exception of Yaffe – have even spent any working time in a rural Atlantic setting. None of them offered any suggestions as to what might be done in any of these communities.

The region’s 100,000 seasonal workers support the livelihood of perhaps another 250,000 people and hundreds of large and small businesses – a value of billions of dollars.

Hundreds of communities and businesses would collapse if the EI program for seasonal workers were cancelled and not replaced with a meaningful program. Considering Harper’s attitude toward the region, it is highly unlikely the government would bring in programs to support rural communities.  

Program elimination would be disastrous for region

Those capable of holding skilled jobs – mostly men – would head for other parts of the country. Families would break up. Thousands of people would be forced to live in poverty on welfare, which pays much less than EI.

The social and financial costs to the country would be absolutely huge compared to the EI payments now shared by workers. None of the articles I found suggested any alternative ways of   

The bitterness of some journalists concerning this issue is hard to understand.

An angry New Brunswick NDP MP Yvon Godin told an Ottawa forum that, without subsidies, there would be no lobster for anyone in Ontario. In their book, Ibbitson and Bricker, seemingly not caring about the lives of people, wrote that fundamental laws of supply and demand ensure that, even without subsidies, potatoes and lobster are available in Toronto – and perhaps as far away as Winnipeg.

After describing the EI changes in an article, National Post journalist Jesse Kline added: “This is meant to be a kick in the region’s derriere. But it is only a start.”

We should eliminate ‘business journalism’

What motivates these journalists to be so mean-spirited?  Maritime academics Karen and Brian Foster believe they have the answer:

“The only reason these writers and pundits and politicians have their knickers in a knot is because of the refusal to sell one’s labour for minimum wage is an affront to their middle-class Tory sensibilities, and therefore a threat to the middle-class Tory privileges around which this moral order is built.”

Business journalism seldom acknowledges the importance of the human condition. In this era of neo-liberalism and its selfish values, journalism is much harsher than at any time in memory. Business writers glamourize the Canadian mining companies that destroy the environment and the lives of poor people around the world. The business pages carry articles by people who support the development of the tar sands and question whether global warming is caused by human endeavour.

Because of this kind of journalism, the powerful men who run our economy are let off the hook and are never confronted with the consequences of their abuses. Personally, I’m in favour of abolishing so-called business journalism. We should hold all journalists to the same moral and ethical standards.

Nick Fillmore is a Nova-Scotia-born journalist and social activist now living in Toronto. He worked in several capacities with the CBC over 25 years, and was also one of the founders of the Canadian Association of Journalists. When he was very young and didn’t know any better, he wrote business profile articles for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business from the Maritimes. Feedback welcome: fillmore0274@rogers.com Nick’s blog: nickfillmore.blogspot.com


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