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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

CERB exposes business reliance on poverty wages

Clearly at least part of the ire directed at the CERB by business groups and pundits is because it exposes how wedded to poverty wages so many Canadian businesses are.

As the pandemic continues to rage while bourgeois capitalist governments in Canada push an agenda of "reopening", the ghouls of the business class and punditry are increasingly howling against the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

The CERB -- which is a woefully inadequate response to the massive job losses that resulted from the necessary shutdown of various sectors of the economy when the coronavirus first emerged -- grants workers a (taxable) benefit of $2000 a month. This is less than the maximum (taxable) Employment Insurance weekly rate of $573 a week. As we have looked at before, the CERB was necessary only due to years of attacks on and cutbacks to the EI program in terms of eligibility and benefits.

$2000 a month is hardly a luxurious or even comfortable income almost anywhere in the country, but that has not stopped the jackals of Bay St. from denouncing it as a "disincentive" to workers returning to their jobs.

On July 9, for example, Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada penned a Globe and Mail column saying that the CERB should scrapped and the corporate welfare handout of the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) extended.

On the CERB he writes:

But for the recovery to become firmly entrenched, companies will need access to workers as capacity ramps up. The CERB as a disincentive for workers to re-enter the labour force is a real risk...
Accommodations and food services, as well as retail trade, are two sectors that pay lower wages and have been severely affected by the pandemic. In fact, they accounted for more than a quarter of these job vacancies. Employers of all types are already anecdotally facing labour shortages in a period of record levels of unemployment.

He glows with praise for the CEWS however:

Shifting funding away from the CERB and into the CEWS would be a good strategy to help lift consumer and business confidence and accelerate the recovery. It will give Canadians an incentive to return to work, and employers the certainty that assistance is available to them until the economy returns to normal.
The CEWS is key to helping many businesses operate and hire in a high-cost environment.

Of course, yet again, we see the irony of a free market capitalist calling for direct payments to working people to be axed in favour of more robust handouts to businesses. Always worth remembering that the business class has absolutely no issue with the government dispensing cash as long as it is to them.

Today, July 16, the bottom feeders at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) joined the fray with a press release warning that the CERB was preventing workers from returning to crappy jobs.

According to them a survey of small business owners found that some laid off workers are refusing to come back. Allegedly 62% of these workers said they would not return because they "prefer to stay on the (CERB)" while 47% say "they are concerned about their own physical health or that of their family".

CFIB president Dan Kelly disgracefully says:

It is clear that CERB has created a disincentive to return to work for some staff, especially in industries like hospitality and personal services. CERB was created as emergency support for workers who had lost their job due to the pandemic, not to fund a summer break.

Setting aside that we have to take the word of business owners who have an incentive themselves to cast the CERB in a bad light for this and that these stats are anything but scientific, this still means that even according to their numbers half of the workers allegedly refusing to return are doing so as they are rightfully worried about their health. To talk of this as taking a "summer break" shows the usual contempt that business leaders have for their workers.

Beyond that, however, is also a glaringly obvious fact that these titans of retail don't care to expand upon too much, which is that if the paltry CERB is a disincentive to doing certain jobs those jobs are paying disgracefully low, poverty wages.

Antunes tries to obfuscate on this point by saying:

Currently, at $2,000 a month, the CERB is equivalent to an average hourly wage of just less than $15 for an average 33-hour work week – well above the minimum wage in most Canadian jurisdictions.

Terrible to think that the CERB might payout more than totally inadequate minimum wages to workers not even getting full time hours from their employers, but his math conveniently also sidesteps the fact that if you divide the benefit by an actual 40 hour full time work week the hourly wage it is equivalent to is $12.50.

In other words, Antunes is railing against people getting a benefit during a pandemic because it might stop them from returning to often dangerous jobs that pay totally inadequate wages that you cannot live on and that in some cases do not provide full time work.

Clearly at least part of the ire directed at the CERB by these folks is because it exposes how wedded to poverty wages so many Canadian businesses are. Instead of allowing business groups and leaders to frame the CERB and its recipients in crass, ugly ways we need to remind all workers and politicians that what is really bad for the economy and bad for society is that altogether too many businesses pay workers wages that are unacceptably low and that minimum wages across the country are totally inadequate.

The basic immorality of poverty wages is made even more starkly evident by the demands of the business sector that working people be pushed off meager pandemic benefits and forced to work, no matter the danger to themselves. If business wants to "incentivize" working they could try raising the hourly pay of their employees to a livable level.



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