Apr 242020
Trudeau Laughing

Demand EI increases and full coverage now!

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in Canada, the Trudeau government has unveiled a series of temporary programs designed to stabilize working people’s incomes. Details of these measures have only been announced gradually, with many revisions and contradictions, and it has been left to individuals to navigate a confusing and incomplete web of information.

In the process, the government has determinedly avoided the obvious – reform of Employment Insurance (EI) so that it provides a decent income to all unemployed people, including first-time job seekers. Such reform has been urgently needed for many years and is now critical. The massive surge in applications for emergency income benefit is a clear indication of the depth of economic precarity experienced by the working class, a depth that has been deliberately obscured by severe EI eligibility limitations. The pandemic has ripped off the mask, to expose the realities of work in this economy and highlight the needs of working people.

The centrepiece of Trudeau’s income program is the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), which the government claims will provide $2000 per month to workers who are unemployed as a result of the pandemic. The $2000 payment, which only lasts for 16 weeks and ends in October, is insufficient to cover the costs of housing, utilities, food and other necessities in almost any area of the country. In addition, the payments are taxable, so most recipients need to put aside at least 19 percent of the benefit, in order to cover their federal and provincial or territorial income tax. 

Furthermore, as details have slowly emerged it is clear that many working people are excluded from the CERB. Students who are beginning to look for summer jobs, workers in the gig economy, and people who have any income whatsoever are among those immediately deemed ineligible. In response to outcry over these exclusions, the government has begun introducing other targeted programs. These include the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), which provides a paltry $1250 per month to post-secondary students and recent graduates, payable between May and August. This is equivalent to income from a full-time job paying less than $8.95 per hour – it is wholly insufficient to cover rent and living expenses for students who do not live at home, let alone exorbitant tuition and ancillary fees. Moreover, the CESB is not available to hundreds of thousands of secondary students who rely on summer employment income to pay for their eventual post-secondary education.

This patchwork of temporary measures clearly reveals that working people are an afterthought to this government. It is disgraceful, especially when compared to the billions of dollars that corporations are receiving from the government, that huge sectors of the working class have been excluded from the initial minimal income benefits and have had to fight for even flimsier supports. The CERB and CESB, like other basic income schemes, are a way for the government to ground unemployed workers in a subsistence-level floor. In the process, employers are guaranteed a pool of workers who are desperate to sell their labour power at poverty wages. It is a vicious and cynical program for reproducing capitalism’s “disposable industrial reserve army” of the poor and unemployed.

The Communist Party of Canada has long demanded EI reform so that the program meets the needs of unemployed people, rather than accommodating the profit motives of capitalism. EI was won as the result of determined struggle by unemployed workers during the Great Depression, including through the On-to-Ottawa Trek. Since then, governments have worked to undermine the program, and today fewer than 40 percent of workers who make mandatory contributions are eligible to collect benefits.

Specific immediate measures, which must be made permanent, include:

  • Expanding EI to include all unemployed workers – insured and uninsured; full-time, part-time, contract and gig economy workers; and first time job seekers.  
  • Removing the waiting period so that EI is accessible immediately.
  • Making EI non-contributory.
  • Ending the use of “insurable hours” so that EI is paid for the full duration of unemployment.
  • Increasing EI payments to 90% of previous earnings or 90% of an annual livable income, whichever is greater.

We call on all labour and progressive organizations to take up these demands, on behalf of the entire working class, in the struggle for a recovery that puts people’s needs before corporate profit.