GETTING CANADIANS BACK TO WORK: More Reforms Needed to Make El Decentralization Effective

By Lahey, Pamela; Hall, Peter V. | CCPA Monitor, June 2006 | Go to article overview

GETTING CANADIANS BACK TO WORK: More Reforms Needed to Make El Decentralization Effective


Lahey, Pamela, Hall, Peter V., CCPA Monitor


Since its inception in 1940, the Canadian unemployment insurance system has undergone numerous reforms and amendments, the most recent and profound of which was the Employment Insurance Act of 1996. The new CanadaOntario Labour Market Development Agreement (LMDA) signed on November 23, 2005, represents a milestone in the latest round of policy experimentation with one of Canada's oldest social programs. Other provinces concluded LMDAs within a year or two of the federal government's offer in May 1996 to get "Canadians back to work." Ontario's coming on board marked the full decentralization of this active labour market policy, but it will not necessarily translate into better outcomes for unemployed workers.

Effective January l, 2007, the Ontario Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities (MTCU) will assume responsibility for the design, delivery, and management of the Employment Benefits Supports Measures (EBSM, a group of five employment interventions detailed in Part II of the EI Act). Currently in Ontario, these measures are delivered by a series of private and nonprofit agencies which hold contracts with Human Resources Development Canada (HRSDC). The new arrangement is intended to "improve client service, create more and better employment opportunities for Canadians, eliminate overlap and duplication," and "enable Ontario to assume an expanded role in the design and the delivery of labour market development programs."

The new agreement, however, represents not much more than a transfer of the existing delivery mechanisms. Does handing the same program down one governmental level really improve employment opportunities for unemployed Canadians? Simply transferring responsibility for delivery will do little to address the tension that currently exists between policy design and program implementation. In accepting the same financial indicator-based system for measuring program successes that are currently in place, the province has agreed to inherit many of the policy design flaws that plague the current system. This indicator system places emphasis on counting jobs secured and dollars saved, to the exclusion of addressing the type of client served and the quality and sustainability of jobs secured.

Under the new LMDA, employment programs will be aimed at "rapid re-employment of unemployed Ontarians." This rapid re-entry strategy is not new. It is part of the employability framework that currently governs all Canadian employment programs. The employability model is posited on worker deficit. Those who support the employability model believe, at least implicitly, that unemployed workers are underskilled, undereducated, or suffer from a poor work ethos. Even if this were true, these problems are often not best addressed by the rapid return-to-work strategies that have characterized interventions in the El-era.

The tensions between policy goals, design, and implementation are starkly visible in the Targeted Wage Subsidy (TWS), which is one of the five active labour market programs that comprise the Employment Benefits and Supports Measures (EBSM). Our knowledge of the TWS has been informed by Pamela Lahey's University of Waterloo master's research paper, "Evidence and Implications of Creaming in the Targeted Wage Subsidy Program: A Qualitative Study." Targeted Wage Subsidies are intended to return to work those with multiple and/or significant barriers to employment. But, in order to access TWS, a worker must first be job-ready. This is one of the foundational contradictions of the program. How can one be jobready and presented with multiple employment barriers at the same time? This contradiction is further magnified by a program measurement system that focuses on dollars saved rather than on long-term sustainable employment outcomes.

Targeted Wage Subsidies are intended to give those with multiple and/or significant barriers to employment a chance to gain on-the-job experience with a local employer.

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GETTING CANADIANS BACK TO WORK: More Reforms Needed to Make El Decentralization Effective
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