Monday, February 6, 2012

Using a labour shortage to recommodify labour

There was an article in the Edmonton Journal this weekend about Alberta’s labour shortage. The article said in part:
With low unemployment here and higher jobless rates in Central and Eastern Canada, (chair of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce Ken) Barry said the issue of encouraging the jobless to relocate has been pushed for some time.

"(Chamber members) were in Ottawa this fall and had conversations with federal and Ontario politicians. It seems there is not a compelling enough reason to get somebody who has grown accustomed to whatever lifestyle they have, through EI (employment insurance) or whatever, to move across the country," he said Friday.
This is an example of the discouse that has developed around the recommodification of labour. Recommodification is a complicated concept, but a rough-and-ready explanation is that, by denying individuals access to the necessities of life (via reducing income support payments), governments can compel workers to be more responsive to the demands of employers, regardless of workers’ personal preferences.

Take a minute to re-read Barry’s quote carefully. It appears to contain two basic assumptions. First, individuals are defined as workers who should be (but aren't) responsive to the needs of employers. Second, where social programs assist workers to resist or ignore the demands of employers, the state should constrain or eliminate those programs.

It is useful to recall that unemployed workers are not just workers. They are members of a family and a community. They may well have good reason to resist uprooting themselves and their families to come work for Alberta employers. Perhaps they have aging parents to care for or kids in school. Or perhaps the wages offered at their new destination may be poor or the working conditions may be unsafe.

It is also useful to recall that these individuals are also citizens, with rights to certain income support programs (often programs they have funded themselves through paycheque deductions) and a right to live where they choose. Shouldn’t we respect the rights of unemployed individuals to access income support programs and choose where they want to live rather than cutting off access to social programs and using the whip of hunger to force workers to come to Alberta?

Perhaps a better approach (as Barry seems to suggest later) is to induce workers to come to Alberta? Barry's suggestions for doing so (playing up the weather, having a good transportation system) don't really resonate with me as a worker. I might prefer higher wages, job security and safe working conditions. That difference reflects the underlying conflict between the interests of employers (who want cheap, abundant labour) and worker (who want adequate compensation, the opportunity to choose between jobs, and safe working conditions).

-- Bob Barnetson

No comments:

Post a Comment