Unemployment and new desperation

Thomas Hopkins August 23 1982

Unemployment and new desperation

Thomas Hopkins August 23 1982

Unemployment and new desperation


Thomas Hopkins

Geoffrey Hewes, for one, has given up. He is leaving Canada for good, selling his car and furniture, and taking his personal belongings to a country that has jobs and a sunny unemployment rate of six to seven per cent—Australia. “It’s the job situation in this country. It’s the pits, with absolutely everything drying up,” complains the divorced 35-year-old design craftsman from Mississauga, Ont.

Hewes’s decision is an extreme answer to Canada’s deepening unemployment crisis. Plant closures, staff cuts and market collapses have tilted unemployment statistics steadily upward throughout the summer. And Canada’s new jobless armies have scrambled to adapt, using everything from selling beer on nude beaches to applying for the backbreaking “stoop” farm labor long relegated to recent immigrants and imported workers. In twin whammies of bad economic news last week, Statistics Canada announced that the seasonally adjusted July unemployment figures stood at a staggering 11.8 per cent and the Conference Board of Canada surprised no one by dubbing the current downturn “considerably deeper, more persistent and more widespread” than any in recent times. Despite predicting improved economic growth in seven provinces in the next year, the board

warned that the number of unemployed will grow next year in every province, led by Newfoundland which will see its unemployment rate climb to 16.8 per cent, Quebec to 14.4 per cent and New Brunswick to 14.4 per cent.

As the grim body count of recession mounts, the current round of unemployment is showing signs of causing unexpected stresses on the economy. While jobless rates climbed throughout the

1970s from six to eight to 10 per cent, bureaucrats attempted to minimize the impact by arguing that most of the new unemployment was from the marginal work ranks of youth and new secondincome women workers. They also pointed to the “social safety net” of unemployment insurance (Ul) as a means of averting the hardships encountered during the crippling unemployment of the Depression in the 1930s.

Today, as the recession drags on, however, it is not just women and high school students who are out of work but,

for the first time, middle-class male managers, who stand blinking and embarrassed in unemployment lines. And the safety net of unemployment insurance shows signs of developing gaping holes: tens of thousands of unemployed are reaching the 50-week end of their benefits with no prospect of a job. By June, 45 per cent of the 1.4 million Ul recipients had been receiving benefits for 28 weeks or more. In Quebec the figure was more than 50 per cent. Six years ago, 67 per cent of those reaching 50 weeks—“exhaustees”—found work quickly, and only five per cent ended up on municipal welfare rolls. There are signs, however, that the numbers will be higher this time. Despite a new $41-million federal job creation fund for regions of the country with high proportions of exhaustees, municipal officials across the country are already reporting sharp increases in welfare applications and they warn that their budgets may be unable to handle the demand.

In New Brunswick, with a July unemployment tally of 13.2 per cent, 3,100 joined the 62,200—which includes families already on the welfare rolls. Provincial officials indicate that additional funding will probably be required before the fiscal year ends March 31. New Brunswick’s deputy minister of social services, Georgio Gaudet, says the current recession has brought “a new cate-

‘People just don’t know what to do/says one Salvation Army captain. All their lives they have had money ’

gory of social assistance client” to his doorstep. “These are people who had no need of assistance before.”

Still, despite public hand-wringing by politicians, it is clear that the dominant philosophy influencing the federal government is tight-money monetarism and that there is some justice in last week’s charge by the Social Planning Council of Metropolitan Toronto that “high unemployment in Canada is public policy.”

It was a view supported by federal Transport Minister Jean-Luc Pepin when he reacted to the announcement of large-scale layoffs at Canadian National Railways and Air Canada last week. Asked whether the government’s restraint programs might cost more jobs in the future, Pepin responded, “There might be in some instances, but don’t you think it is better to protect jobs that people have now by getting people out of dramatic inflation than by simply allowing things to go on?”

In light of that hard reality, Canadians have responded with an array of strategies for dealing with unemployment or

the threat of it. Workers and their families in vulnerable manufacturing, construction or resource industries are stockpiling food in their basements and paring down mortgages. Those already laid off are exchanging expensive cars for bicycles and reducing rent by doing odd jobs for the landlord.

One sign of the times is that Canadians are flocking to apply for any work. When Peter Danos advertised 75 new openings for a restaurant in Oakville, Ont., nearly 900 people showed up. “Some had been looking for jobs for months,” says Danos. “In some cases, their tone was desperate.” People are also moving to reclaim such onerous jobs as fruit and tobacco picking, that were once disdainfully left to temporarily imported Mexican and West Indian laborers. When officials at the Canada Employment Centre in Brantford, Ont., learned that some of the 95 Mexican workers scheduled to work picking tobacco this year could not come, there was no panic: local Canadian workers quickly made up the shortfall. Says Jim Walters, agricultural co-ordinator for Ontario: “This time is different; we usually bring in 10,000 relief workers [from the rest of Canada] but this year we’re only bringing in 5,000.” Most Ontario mushroom growers have stopped importing foreign workers altogether, and in British Columbia Raj Chouhan, president of the Canadian Farmworkers Union, says the number of Canadians seeking farm labor is up over other

years. Says Chouhan: “I asked one person what he used to do, and he said he was a plumber.”

In other instances, coping with unemployment means that entire communities pull together. Tony Crain and his family moved to Edmonton from Winnipeg six months ago. When he lost his job as a sanitation worker, Edmontonians chipped in bus fare to send the Crains back home. In the largely Mennonite and Mormon logging town of Vanderhoof in northern British Columbia, 100 nonunion workers at Nechako Lumber Co. Ltd. waived a scheduled 13per-cent wage boost in July in order to avoid joining 19,000 B.C. forest workers currently laid off. In exchange, the company kept the plant open. A 10-per-cent pay reduction kept Bond Brothers Sawmill Ltd. running despite the fact that, according to owner Michael Bond, “We’re still losing money.” A five-percent wage rollback at the local Vanderhoof Co-op Association forestalled all but a few layoffs. “The ethnic background of these people is to stick together,” says Lloyd Larsen, president of Nechako Lumber. “And the community seems to be working with them.”

Some means of coping with joblessness are more imaginative. On a sunny day as many as two dozen unemployed entrepreneurs can be seen peddling beer and refreshments to the burnished skinny dippers at Vancouver’s Wreck Beach. Students, particularly hard hit this summer, have started hundreds of house painting and gardening businesses across the country. Strip-AGram in Vancouver has received an overwhelming response for messengers who are willing to shed their clothing while delivering greetings for birthdays and anniversaries. Says owner Bill Keeton: “Their first questions are, ‘How much do I get paid and when do I start?’ rather than ‘What do I do?’ ”

Other responses are far less frivolous. In Calgary, where jobs once went begging, ui applications are up 171 per cent in the past year. The Salvation Army family emergency services has experienced a 600-percent increase in its case load in the past year. “People just don’t know what to do,” says Salvation Army Capt. Edward Ostrom of his middleclass clients. “All their lives they have had enough money to spend and suddenly they have no job. It came so quickly here.” In Saint John, N.B., the volunteer-run g Romero House soup ^kitchen opened to steadily increasing de-

mand in March. “We had no idea we would become involved in such a big endeavor/’ says Carolyn McNulty, who founded the kitchen after becoming concerned about how the poor were weathering the recession.

Inevitably, some of the new unemployed are not able to cope. Youth joblessness in Vancouver has soared from 8.4 per cent in 1981 to 15.9 per cent this year. With break-ins occurring once every 38 minutes in that city, police estimate that up to 75 per cent are committed by young people. In Calgary calls to the Salvation Army’s suicide prevention line have doubled in the past year, many from people who have recently lost their jobs and cannot meet their mortgage payments.

Professionals are not immune, especially in the slumping West. Many are turning to placement services such as Technical Service Council (TSC) after being laid off. Calgarians have witnessed a dramatic change from a year ago when, says TSC Manager Gary Agnew, “an engineer could walk out one door, say goodbye, and the next day walk into another position. That just isn’t the case today.” Agnew’s Calgary office has experienced a 100-per-cent increase in client load in the past year. The same holds true in Edmonton, where Patricia Resler, who runs an executive placement centre, is finding positions for managers who only last year were placing jobs with her service. “It’s dismal,” she says.

But it is likely that the new middleclass unemployed are the hardest hit. James Moffatt, 52, of Fredericton retired from the Canadian Armed Forces two years ago for a job as a cadet instructor in Trenton, Ont. Federal cuts

scuttled that job, and Moffatt has been looking for work ever since. Returning to Atlantic Canada, he grew a beard, worked as a Santa Claus for parties and sold some furniture to get by. A stint as a butler-cook-chauffeur for a wealthy man in St. Andrews, N.B., will end soon, and he fears he will have to sell the rest of his furniture and move in with his wife’s parents. “We’ll try to stay on here until October,” he says, “and then I’m back on the pogey line.”

“I’ll wash dishes; I’ll do anything,” says Calgary’s John Broadhead from the kitchen of his Beddington Heights home last week. Broadhead, along with 89 other Calgary transit drivers, will lose his $12.70-an-hour job next month. He expects to lose his house and his fledgling part-time used-furniture store before moving back to Ontario. “The guys were joking at work about - being out on the street,” he recalls. “When it happened it came as a shock.” But Broadhead says he is better off than some of the other drivers. “It’s the younger drivers who got married on the strength of their job,” he says. “They thought they had security, now they don’t have a prayer. Those kids are going to be flushed down the toilet.”

Despite initial glimmers of economic recovery, re-employment demands are expected to lag far behind any turnaround. What is worse, critics of government policy, such as the Social Planning Council of Metropolitan Toronto, charged last week that the federal government “cooks” the unemployment figures to make them more palatable. By including so-called “underemployed” workers and workers who have become discouraged and have given up the job search, the council says the real number of Canadians unemployed is 2.3 million, or 18 per cent, not the 11.8 per cent the government alleges.

It is all too ominous for draftsman Geoffrey Hewes. A friend sent him a copy of a Melbourne, Australia, newspaper with a 60-page job section including 30 or 40 ads for draftsmen. “Jobs are starting to slow down here,” Hewes says. “They have already laid off three people at my j ob and they’re planning to get rid of six more. I’m not waiting around.” Most Canadians, however, have neither the option nor the inclination to pull up stakes, and for them the next months will be a very tough ride.

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