by Matt D’Amours in Montreal
Community organizations and immigrant lobby groups in Quebec are speaking out against a provincial welfare reform bill that would require new social assistance applicants to enter the job market sooner.
Activists say that Bill 70, “An Act to allow a better match between training and jobs and to facilitate labour market entry,” will have a disproportionate impact on Quebec’s immigrant population, which is overrepresented in the welfare system.
At the Minister of Labour’s request, Bill 70 would seek to introduce a “workfare” system that requires welfare recipients to enter a job training program, or “accept any offer of suitable employment.”
Those who fail to meet these conditions could see their social assistance cut in half. For a single adult receiving $623 a month, that would mean a drop down to about $308.
Political opponents have also criticized the plan, introduced last year by the province’s Liberal government. In a National Assembly debate on Feb. 25, Bernard Drainville of the Parti Québécois called the law “heartless, arbitrary, unwise, myopic and disrespectful.”
During a parliamentary hearing on Feb. 17, Labour Minister François Blais defended Bill 70, saying that Quebec’s immigrant population would not be adversely affected by the legislation.
“In general, as you know, immigrants want to integrate and make the necessary efforts to find employment,” Blais said. The minister added that, among the organizations he had spoken to, there was “zero worry” about how the proposed welfare reforms would impact the immigrant population.
Faulty perceptions of immigrants and employment
Pascale Chanoux, of the group Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes (TCRI), testified at the Feb. 17 hearing, and said the minister’s comments highlight the government’s faulty logic about immigrants and employment.
“Bill 70 claims that if we want to, we can – which is to say that whether someone gets a job or not is based on whether they want to or not,” Chanoux explained. “The minister does not see that on the path of professional integration for immigrants, there are systemic obstacles … [for him] everything is always about the willingness and responsibility of the individual.”
Another person who testified that day was Nalawattage Pinto, a Sri Lankan immigrant who came to Canada in 1993.
Pinto described the systemic barriers that made his job search difficult upon arrival, including his lack of French language skills, and the market’s lack of recognition of his professional experience in Sri Lanka.
Pinto was forced to work nights at a chemical plant, which he alleged only hired new immigrants because it was dangerous work.
He also said the company only hired people for six months, so that workers wouldn’t have time to unionize. After Pinto and his wife lost their jobs in 1994, they were forced to apply for welfare.
Pinto is not alone. According to a provincial report on social assistance published in November 2015, new Canadians make up nearly a quarter of welfare recipients in Quebec.
However, another provincial report, which tracked immigrant welfare requests between 1996 and 2004, found that most made their application early after their arrival in the province – usually within the first six months.
That same report found that once these immigrants opted out of the welfare program, they generally didn’t return.
“This first stay in social assistance is, in the large majority of cases, a unique episode in the process of integration for immigrants,” the report concluded.
‘Suitable’ employment for who?
The concern with Bill 70 is that for immigrants seeking assistance within their first months in Quebec, the mandate to accept a job that is deemed “suitable” by the government could force people into a cycle of low wages, and further trivialize the qualifications they held in their native countries.
“We talk about accepting a suitable job – but suitable for who?” asks Chanoux. “Do we want to institutionalize de-qualification by pushing people into a job without regard to their socio-professional background?”
Those who refuse to accept “suitable” employment would see massive cuts to welfare benefits, which are already too low to live on, according to Project Genesis, a social justice community organization based in Montreal.
The group points to a fall 2015 report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which shows that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Montreal now stands at $675 – $52 more than the current welfare benefits received by a single person.
“Any policy that reduces the income of households living in poverty is destined to … [increase the] depth of poverty experienced by people on low income,” stated Project Genesis.
During his closing remarks at the Feb. 17 hearing on Bill 70, Pinto outlined the hardships he had experienced as an immigrant in Quebec.
“I’ve had jobs at minimum wage since I’ve been in Canada,” Pinto explained. “I am now 65, and I did not achieve the dream that we had when we came here.”
If Bill 70 passes in Quebec, the TCRI and Project Genesis argue, Pinto’s dream of a better life will become harder to achieve for a whole new wave of immigrants.
“We’re talking about poverty and exclusion,” Chanoux said of the proposed legislation. “It’s part of a tendency to try and recoup money on the backs of populations that are very vulnerable.”
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