Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Let's Get to Work

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 21, 2012

Posted to Moncton Free Press, April 21, 2012

I've just returned from Estonia, a country which feels a lot like New Brunswick, and returned home to find clipped out for me a piece of nonsense from the Times & Transcript called "Let's get to work."

It's sad to read an editorial like this, as it reflects virtually no understanding of either the nature of the economy nor the nature of the hopes and aspirations not only of New Brunswickers but of people everywhere.

While in northern Europe I read about the exodus of workers from countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to more prosperous lands, most notably Britain and Norway, but also (as the T&T editorial notes) places like New Brunswick.

What is it about Canada that would make it a more attractive place to live? Why would someone from Lithuania take the arduous journey to New Brunswick to work at a Tim's, a fish plant, or on a berry farm?

It's because if your seasonal work ends on the farm in Lithuania, there's no fallback. It's because if you get injured on the job in Latvia, there won't be public health care to support you. It's because working for a minimum wage in Estonia condemns you to an impoverished existence.

If you want to see desperation, walk through the markets of eastern Europe and look into the eyes of people whose daily pay depends on you buying a sweater from them. Or maybe, as I saw recently in India, a family that without housing has to live - to eat, dress and bathe - on the sidewalk.

If people want to live here in New Brunswick, if people want to stay here in New Brunswick, it's because we have a system that does not relegate people to that level of poverty. It's because we offer something more than a condescending glance.

And yet even that is not enough, as we see in New Brunswick the same phenomenon as we see in the Baltic nations - people packing up house and home and moving away, moving west, in search of a better life. And reading the T&T editorial, it's not hard to see why.

The editors at our local newspaper, rather than touting and supporting the social supports that make New Brunswick an attractive place to live, would rather return to a pre-industrial age where life was hand-to-mouth, as it is in the most desperate nations today. And this editorial (from April 11) is a concerted effort to move us in that direction.

From the beginning, it attacks the integrity of people on EI or social assistance. "Some New Brunswickers still work for a few weeks a year during the fishing seasons and then draw Employment Insurance benefits the rest of the year." An honest editorial would state how many New Brunswickers subsist this way, and how many weeks constitutes "a few".

But more, an honest editorial would describe the EI situation for seasonal fishing industry workers for what it is: a subsidy for the fish-plant owners, who without this seasonal workforce would not be able to pay the wages required when people work only six months of the year.

But even worse, according to the Times & Transcript, "Still others don't work at all but rely entirely on welfare payments." How many? For the province of New Brunswick, it's about 41,000 people - down from 50,000 about ten years ago. More than half of those are children (the caseload is less than 20,000). About 6,000 of these cases province-wide are on extended assistance. Of these, the number of employable adults is, what, a couple hundred? The reports don't say - compared to the children, the seniors, the ill and injured, the number is so inconsequential it is not worth mentioning.

The reason people aren't taking these seasonal jobs being filled by immigrants to New Brunswick is two-fold: first, they can do better, and second, more significantly, they want to do better.

But that's not the future the Times & Transcript has in mind for them. The editors write, "we believe many could be employed and not just for part of the year in processing plants."

Where, you ask? "Not long ago in this province, living 'on the town' was almost unheard of save for the badly disabled. The men went to the forest in the winter for pulp and fuel wood, and some women accompanied them as camp cooks, janitors and yes, a few lumberjacks too."

As we noted in our household, that was not why the women accompanied the men - they were engaged in a rather different profession. And we laughed at the idea that forestry industry employment at work camps was even a possibility in today's mechanized forestry industry dominated by a single employer.

But, yes, in those days that was the life of a New Brunswicker - live in the forests in winter, move from fish plant to fish plant as the fishing seasons progressed, then get some pick-up labour in the fall on the farms. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, with no permanent home and no options if you couldn't land the next job.

This is the life the Times & Transcript would like to see for New Brunswickers. "Times have not changed so much," they write, "that a return to some of the values of our traditional ways cannot be accomplished."

What I have seen of people who live in a place where this is all they can hope for is that, if they can, they leave. Because nobody wants to live in such conditions.

The Times & Transcript says, "If work is within reasonable reach there should be little recourse but to accept it or face loss of benefits." This (it goes without saying, and is definitely left unsaid) would be the case even if accepting work would mean a net loss for the person.

Because - think of it - suppose you are on welfare and able to work and living in, say, Moncton. If you are one of those few people on extended benefits, you probably have housing support, perhaps dental care, and access to other local services such as the food bank. If you accept a minimum wage job on some farm for a couple months, you lose your benefits, housing and dental support, have to move out there for whatever time it takes (without subsidy) and once you're let go you'll have to move somewhere else again and try to get established.

Only a moron would accept work under such circumstances - or a person coming from a place where conditions are so desperate even the sort of extortion proposed by the Times & Transcript sounds like a good deal. Because, for them, it's a foot in the door - maybe, just maybe, they can manage to catch on with some real work, and leave the ridiculous under-paid short-term contracts behind.

The immigrants, writes the newspaper, "serve as a reminder of what we once were here; a tough, self-reliant people who did not need or want the corrosive 'help' of Ottawa."

That's some gall, coming from a company that just accepted a $20 billion make-work contract constructing frigates, and is otherwise the single largest beneficiary of public assistance in the province. The day that company, and others like it, are prepared to decline all 'corrosive' help from the public purse I will regard them as something other than vile hypocrites.

In the mean time, let's look at these economic migrants as the reminder they really are - a reminder of a time when things were so desperate here in New Brunswick people would do anything they could to survive, and lived for the day they could get enough scratch together to get out and live a better life somewhere else. As so many thousands upon thousands have done over the years.

It is not merely laughable but downright disgusting that some shill paid for by the self-same corporation would laud these as better times. How despicable! How miserable! To think that this writer would think it is somehow better to live in miserable poverty.

New Brunswick still struggles economically, and it does so not because of the quality of its people, but because of the moral bankruptcy of the small number of corporations who thrive by promoting proverty and forcing the locals to work at the lowest possible wage.

So, yes, let's get to work in New Brunswick. Let's work toward a decent wage for a decent day's work. Let's work toward a future where we can be more than seasonal labourers toiling in the forests and fields for a day-to-day existence. Let's work toward a future where New Brunswick is no longer a place you want to get out of in order to have a decent life.

And let's work toward a reversal of the perversion of morality that is being expressed in our public media.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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