Oh, the bosses are on da rant again.

For the past several months, the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers’ Council – the kindly lot who oppose pension increases for our seniors, opposed minimum wage increases for our youth, think injured workers should be forced back to work sooner, and lobby to free multi-million dollar corporations from the burden of the ‘Health and Post-Secondary Education’ tax (and this just in the past two years!) – have been pushing a new line in their stand-up routine. As unoriginal as it is untrue, it’s the notion that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are lazy and prefer EI to real work.

Hold your applause, please.

This little anti-Newfoundlander meme, which has somehow morphed from a mainland put-down to a homegrown lobby tool of the big bosses’ club (the NLEC), has received its latest round of media coverage thanks to a “survey” (we use the term lightly) conducted of NLEC members (in other words, a survey commissioned by the bosses, of the bosses). Anyhow, forgetting the wonkiness of an organization surveying its own members to find out whether they agree with the organization’s ideology, let’s spend a moment and consider the “survey” results.

Corporate Research Associates (whose president made a CBC radio appearance last year to argue against unions) surveyed 255 NLEC members, less than half of which responded to the survey. Meanwhile, 2009 statistics indicate over 17,000 employer businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador. Which would suggest we’re dealing with a survey sample of, um, far less than 1%.

Of those, 60 percent (in other words, 66 employers out of the thousands in this province) reported that an employee asked for a layoff in order to receive EI benefits.

Whooo.

Now I must admit, I’ve known people to do this. And I don’t blame them one bit. All too often an employer hires somebody for a short term position; the employee will then try and convince them to keep them on long enough to get an EI claim. It’s sure better than getting nothing when they’re laid off, which is the alternative. Maybe this is what those less than 1% of employers did?

Next result: 41% of respondents reported an employee turning down a job offer due to eligibility for EI benefits. Now we’re dealing with 46 out of thousands of employers. Well, as a friend of mine recently put it, if you’re living in St. Anthony and offered a job in St. John’s for minimum wage, are you going to relocate yourself and your family, given that your new salary won’t even cover rent costs in the capital? Not very likely. And I don’t blame you.

Finally, 32% of respondents (for those counting, we’re now talking 35 employers, or 0.2% of the province’s employers) said current EI rules make it harder to find employees. Well, if that means 99.8% of the province’s employers are fine with the current EI rules, then hi-fives all around.

Moreover, if that means 32 employers think that getting rid of EI, so that workers face an alternative of, well, starvation, means that they’ll be more willing to work for sub-par wages, well I think that’s 32 employers this province would be better off without.

The problem’s not the employees. It’s the employers.

The NLEC is concerned about a legitimate problem: the fact employers are finding it harder to find workers willing to work for them. Their campaign around this survey seeks to blame the EI system for this problem.

But the problem is not the work ethic of Newfoundland and Labrador’s workers. The problem is the employment ethic of Newfoundland and Labrador’s employers. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are no chumps. If somebody hires you at minimum wage (or a paltry buck or two above minimum wage), doesn’t give you an increase in your first six months, acts all surly and doesn’t pay you if you phone in sick, grumbles when you ask to take some vacation days, watches over your shoulder and bugs you as you’re doing the job you’re trained and hired to do, are you going to stick around and take the abuse? Absolutely not. You’re going to find a way out of that unpleasant, and possibly harassing, work environment, ideally with a bit of cash to tide you over, and look for a decent job that respects you, respects your skills and interests and abilities, and treats you good.

Is it any wonder that we are becoming world-renowned for our high-tech firms, our creative marketing firms, and our knowledge industry firms where, for the most part, workers are paid well, given generous holidays, no questions asked if they phone in sick or take leave days, with employers who give them bonuses and take them out for group dinners at The Keg and party nights on George Street? We’ve got good employers, and those industries are booming.

Is it any wonder that we’re facing dire shortages in those fields where workers are paid minimum wage, where they’ve got two-bit supervisors yelling at them every couple of minutes, where they’re threatened with termination if they call in sick, where they’re non-unionized so the boss picks favourites to give raises and holidays to, where employment is characterized by frequent layoffs because the employers are too cheapskate to keep permanent employees on staff when it’s cheaper to keep them on short-term contracts?

If there’s a work ethic problem, it’s not with the workers. It’s with the employers who are driving their own workers to rapid turnover.

And for those who say “well, I just can’t afford to give raises or bonuses or let workers take sick days”, well, to be quite honest you shouldn’t be in business in the first place.

This is, remember, the province where a 2008 study revealed that between 2002 and 2007 corporate profits rose by 195% (almost four times the national average), while workers’ wages only rose by 42% during the same period. In a province so dominated by employers willing to stuff their own pockets and ignore their workers, it’s no wonder some of them are having trouble finding workers in the first place.

Lazy? Get real.

During the past month I’ve been writing a 4-part series for The Independent about the labour market in this province. I got to talk to a lot of young workers in the trades, who are perplexed – and upset – about the lack of respect they’ve been getting from the employers they thought would be pleased to have their skills and labour.

There’s Jennifer, who got a certificate in one trade, and when she couldn’t find work, rather than sit on her hands she went back and learned a second trade. She was a regular fixture at local companies’ HR offices, handing in literally hundreds of resumes, before concluding that she wasn’t being hired because she was a woman.

Then there’s Jeremy, who hasn’t been able to find more than a couple months work at a time in this province without getting laid off by employers who find it more profitable to hire workers short-term rather than have them permanently on staff. He was offered work at Long Harbour (and turned down other offers to take it, since he valued the experience) but after 5 weeks they didn’t need him any more and laid him off. He decided that rather than sit around, he’d go back to school to learn more skills. Just before his course started, he got offered a job in Labrador. After thinking long and hard, he decided it was more important to get workforce experience, and he cancelled his course to go up to Labrador. Two weeks later, that employer laid him off too. Now he’s had enough, and is on the verge of leaving the province to find an employer that will respect him.

What right do employers have to make complaints about the supposed misbehavior of workers who don’t tell them up front they might not work beyond a year, when those same employers are the ones willing to lay off workers at the drop of a hat after 2 or 5 weeks work, giving them no warning, because it’s more profitable for them that way? The Telegram provides unverifiable anecdotes about workers trying to scam EI (and while I greatly respect Meeker and read his blog regularly, I cannot agree with him on this), but we’ve got documented proof of repeated layoffs at Hibernia, Long Harbour, Wabush Mines, Abitibi-Bowater, Vale Inco: in some cases companies which were still raking in massive profits even though they implemented local layoffs to save money.

And at the same time, the NLEC is asking government not to implement recommendations that would make these large corporations more accountable to the public. Well you can’t have it both ways. Demanding intense scrutiny for the province’s workers at the same time as you demand a blind eye be turned to the province’s employers is not just hypocritical, it’s laughable.

The fact is, for years the employers of this province have been able to tell workers they’re lucky if they can get a job, and so they should accept wages and treatment below the national average. Now – and for the foreseeable future – the tables are turned, and employers have to prove themselves worthy to the workers they want to hire. It’s time for the province’s employers to smarten up and earn the respect of their hard-working and talented employees.

You want scrutiny? Fine, let’s have it.

Now, this is not to paint all employers with one brush (to echo the NLEC’s own disclaimer). I know plenty of good employers in St. John’s; I’ve even found some of them nice enough to become friends with. But as long as we’re exchanging anecdotes, here’s a couple of my own. A good friend of mine recently got hired to a firm in Ontario which has a standing policy that any time a statutory holiday falls on a Monday or Friday, they get the adjoining Monday or Friday off too. Four-day weekends? Why not! What’s more, instead of having to earn your vacation during your first year, all new employees start off with three weeks vacation ready to use whenever they want. That way employees don’t have to scheme and plot ways of getting the scattered day off to deal with life issues, or even just to give themselves a mental break, during that first year. The employer assumes they’re all conscientious workers, acknowledges there’s going to be times they’ll need to take days off, and trusts the employees to make their own responsible decisions.

Compare that to the miserly attitudes of far too many local employers. Ridiculously generous policies? Wonky mainland attitudes? No, it’s how you run a business if you want your employees to share your commitment and to stick around.

For that matter, the EI system doesn’t even cover a significant number of the unemployed. A CCPA study in 2009 revealed that only 51% of the unemployed in Canada were collecting EI benefits. Almost half of unemployed Canadians were unable to even access the program that the NLEC claims is preventing them from finding workers.

If the Employers’ Council wants government to enforce labour laws and crack down on workers’ phantom violations of EI, then let’s go the whole way. Let’s set up a fully staffed Department of Labour Enforcement Agency, which will not only review EI usage, but will conduct random spot-checks of local workplaces with no advance warning; will interview workers in full confidentiality about their experiences with their employers; will impose an escalating scale of fines on employers for labour standards violations, will send teams to enforce the penalties and collect the fines, and will shut down employers with repeated violations. Let’s see an anonymous hotline set up for workers to phone in tips about labour standards violations, with a team of inspectors (more than the single staffer currently doing the job) that will follow up on each and every tip. Let’s see employers lose eligibility for all those generous tax breaks they’ve received over the past few years, when they are found guilty of even the smallest violation of labour standards. Let’s see the onus of proof put on the employers to prove that they laid off a worker for just cause, rather than on the employee to prove they were unfairly dismissed.
You want scrutiny? Fine, let’s have scrutiny. Let’s have it all the way, and see who the real parties guilty of violating ethical and labour standards are. I know who I’m betting my money on.

(well, if my employer gave me a raise so that I’d have the money to bet…)