Discontent is rising in Quebec as the government pledges to pass a controversial welfare reform bill by Thursday 24 November 2016 at the latest. Organisations fighting poverty have denounced the initiative, which could throw dozens of welfare recipients out onto the streets.
Bill 70 forces first-time welfare applicants to meet an employment support officer to help them to draw up a personalised plan to help them find work, be it through training, intensive job seeking or social skills development.
Recipients failing to meet their obligations will face substantial financial penalties. Their basic monthly benefits payment of C$623 (US471) could be progressively reduced to C$399 (US$301).
Those taking part in the programme, on the other hand, will see their benefits increased by C$250 dollars (US$189) a month.
“With this reform, the government is turning welfare into a last resort solution rather than a right,” protests Yann Tremblay-Marcotte, spokesperson of the Common Front for Welfare Recipients of Quebec. “The basic benefits are already far too low. Threatening someone with being beneath welfare is deplorable. People in difficulty are being stripped of all dignity.”
The Coalition Objectif Dignité (Coalition for Dignity), formed to fight the Bill, is calling on the Minister of Employment and Social Solidarity, François Blais, to remove the financial penalties and to rely solely on positive incentives.
The coalition is proposing that those refusing to sign up for the employability programmes should simply lose their entitlement to the additional allowance, but should keep their basic benefits.
Penalty not the solution
According to Tremblay-Marcotte, the penalty strategy is ineffective, as well as targeting the wrong individuals.
“It is the most vulnerable people who will struggle to meet the requirements. It’s not because they don’t want to find a way out. But they come up against obstacles on all sides, starting with social stigmatisation. With just C$400 (US$302) a month in their pockets, there is no doubt that they’ll end up being homeless.”
Raymond Gariépy, a welfare recipient, has spent many years trying to find suitable long-term employment. In his view, the government’s bill is absurd.
“I spent 15 years of my life taking part in employability schemes, but I never fulfilled the requirements of the employers or the officers dealing with my case.”
“It is untrue to say that people do not want to work. Financial penalties are not a solution for young people in difficulty. There’s a good chance they’ll resort to extreme solutions, that they’ll turn to crime. They need to be given the means to get away from benefits, not have them taken away from them.”
The government, for its part, is arguing that the considerable ageing of the population in the province is giving rise to a growing need for labour in all fields and in all the regions of Quebec.
“We are not afraid that people fit for work, those targeted by the Bill, will struggle to find work. That’s why it is time to act now, to get them out of the cycle of poverty,” says Simon Laboissonnière, François Blais’s press secretary.
In spite of this labour shortage, sociologist Carole Yerochewski is convinced that companies will not offer their employees optimal conditions. “The economic growth rate is very weak in Quebec at the moment. Companies cannot afford to offer wage increases.”
In her view, the imbalance in the working population will be detrimental to the most vulnerable people and those without much of an education or qualifications.
“With the measures proposed by Bill 70, welfare recipients will be faced with a choice between falling into extreme poverty or accepting a job at any price. They won’t be in a position to negotiate their conditions. They will work for the minimum wage, for an insufficient number of hours.”
“In other words, the needs of companies are being taken care of whilst shifting the burden and the consequences onto the workers.”
Meeting employers’ needs
Bill 70 states that welfare recipients will be obliged to accept “any suitable job that is offered to them”. The term “suitable”, however, remains undefined.
“Everything will be done in accordance with labour standards,” ensures the spokesperson for the Ministry of Employment. “Since there are needs in all the regions, we are convinced that people will not have to move to find work. We will also try to respect the training and qualifications of the various individuals.”
The government’s bill is targeted at the 17,000 new people, fit for work, who apply for benefits each year, the majority of whom are young people aged under 30 and immigrants. More than 6,000 young people come from families that have received welfare benefits.
According to Yerochewski, the idea of accelerating the integration of first-time welfare applicants into the labour market responds to the needs of companies.
“Young people are targeted, because they haven’t yet undergone all the humiliations of the system, they haven’t yet lost total confidence in themselves and, above all, they haven’t yet lost the employers’ vision of the meaning of work.”
“A message is being sent out that the time when there was room for people on benefits is long gone. The state is abandoning them,” adds Tremblay-Marcotte.
To ensure a minimum of dignity for welfare recipients, Yerochewski believes the fight must be kept up for a 15-dollar an hour minimum wage (US$11.39 USD). “It won’t resolve the problem of insufficient hours, but it will, nevertheless, send the government a clear signal about the quality of a job. Moreover, this debate makes the threat to cut welfare appear even more unjust.”
In addition to seeking to decrease the number of recipients, the government is counting on saving almost C$50 million (US$37 million) a year.
In 2018, an analysis of the future law will be studied by a parliamentary commission, to evaluate its impact.