The following is taken from a brief calling for changes to Canada’s Employment Insurance program presented by Joan Brady, women’s vice-president of the National Farmers Union (NFU) to the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women in Ottawa March 24. The brief chronicles how past and current eligibility requirements make the program inaccessible to women and farmers pursuing off-farm employment. For the full brief go to: www.nfu.ca/briefs.html.
While Canadian farmers are among the most productive and efficient sectors of the economy, these attributes have, unfortunately, not led to prosperity for the vast majority.
Farm families in Canada are relying heavily on three strategies to keep their farm operations going: debt financing, off-farm employment, and lowering their overall standard of living.
The percentage of farmers reliant on off-farm income has skyrocketed. According to Statistics Canada, small-and medium-size farms rely on off-farm income for approximately 90 per cent of their total income. Even large farms with gross annual revenues between $100,000 and $499,000 rely on off-farm income for over half (52.1 per cent) of their total income. Canada’s largest farms, with gross revenues over $500,000 annually, depend on off-farm income for between 25.9 per cent and 33.5 per cent of their total income.
The burden of working off-farm is shared by both women and men, but because women are largely responsible for childcare, other family obligations, and household unpaid labour, they are much more likely to be employed in part-time work. Consequently, they are much less likely to qualify for EI benefits because of the difficulty in obtaining the necessary hours.
The structure of the current EI program makes it extremely difficult for farmers of both sexes, but particularly farm women, to access benefits. There need to be changes made to accommodate the needs of self-employed farmers.
The EI program fund has accumulated a surplus well in excess of $54 billion. Despite this massive surplus, the current rules of the EI program ensure that majority of unemployed Canadians will never be able to access benefits to which they are entitled. The program’s eligibility requirements have given the federal government a large fund that has been used to finance tax cuts to corporations, rather than assist unemployed workers. Despite the recent changes to the way the fund is administered, the reality is that only 42 per cent, less than half the unemployed workers in this country are receiving EI payments. That is roughly half the percentage covered during the late 1980s.
The NFU recommends that the federal government follow the recommendations of a Parliamentary Committee, and restore integrity to the Employment Insurance Act by requiring that the cumulative surplus in the EI Account be returned to the EI Program.
The NFU recommends that substantial changes be made to the EI program to ensure that women workers, particularly those in rural communities, are able to fully access benefits – including job training and other educational programs; and that those benefits be increased.
The NFU further recommends that changes to the EI program be implemented to enable self-employed persons, including farmers, to participate meaningfully in the program. The NFU further recommends that net farm income, rather than gross farm income, be one of the criteria that is used in the calculation to determine the eligibility of a farmer’s claim for EI.