The nature of work is changing across advanced economies. The interaction of automation and artificial intelligence with demographic changes, large-scale sectoral disruptions, slowing productivity growth and other trends raises concerns about the future of work. These shifts are also accompanied by the opportunity to shape a future that provides workers with better opportunities for decent work. The nature and design of key support programs is at the heart of whether the future will hold promise or peril for many workers.
The Employment Insurance (EI) program is a core component of Canada’s social safety net and provides vital income support to workers when they lose employment, as well as access to skills-training supports. However, as Canada’s labour market undergoes significant changes, the program is leaving too many people behind and is not well-structured to cope with the large-scale disruptions that lie around the corner.
The future of work will be characterized by structural changes in the labour market, largely driven by new technologies. It will likely mean greater precarity and the continued erosion of traditional employment relationships for Canadian workers. More part-time, temporary and self-employed workers, tenuous attachment to the labour force, and long spells of unemployment will all be more common. These changes are already causing many to fall outside of the EI umbrella today, as many workers are not eligible to qualify for EI or even contribute to the program.
As these trends continue, they will further expose three fundamental flaws with EI:
- The program will continue to leave too many behind, with no protection against the risk of unemployment;
- The evidentiary basis used to justify the regionally based formula for eligibility and benefit levels will continue to erode, leading to an increasingly unfair ineligibility of many workers from the EI program; and
- The design flaws of EI will continue to ripple through the skills training system, creating barriers for Canada’s most vulnerable to improving their employability.
Addressing these issues will require more than simple tinkering with measures to expand eligibility around the margins. To ensure that Canadian workers are properly supported in light of ongoing and emerging trends related to the future of work, these problems must be addressed through bold and fundamental reform of the entire system of unemployment supports.