The 2019 federal budget signals the government’s plans and priorities leading up to the fall election. Canada’s unions expect budget 2019 to outline a multi-year roadmap making significant improvements to the well-being of working people and vulnerable groups in Canada. At the same time, the budget must address urgent priorities for working people in its spending plans for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, including in areas such as Employment Insurance, good job creation, affordable housing, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and climate change.
To advance the goals of fairness and to deal with urgent unmet needs, Canada’s unions are looking for expanded investments in pharmacare, Employment Insurance, child care, affordable housing, and just transition measures to create good jobs while moving Canada toward a low-carbon economy. These investments must address the significant and growing inequality that is intensifying economic insecurity for working people, undermining the social mobility of families and the health of communities across Canada.
Here’s what a “Fairness Budget” means for working people:
1. Universal National Pharmacare
When calling on their government for a national pharmacare plan, Canadians have been clear: we do not want half-measures that continue to grossly inflate medication costs, driving up corporate profits at the expense of universal public coverage. Budget 2019 must outline the federal government’s plan and budget future expenditures to implement a universal, single-payer pharmacare program in Canada. The Interim Report from the Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare called on the government to create a new, arms-length, national drug agency to develop and manage a comprehensive national drug formulary and conduct negotiations with drug manufacturers. Budget 2019 should allocate money for this purpose. Universal pharmacare won’t just ensure everyone has access to the life-saving medications they need, it will save households and employers billions of dollars. Canada is the only developed country in the world with a universal public health care system that does not include universal coverage for prescription drugs. As a result, more than 3.6 million Canadians cannot afford to fill their prescriptions and Canadians pay the third highest drug prices in the world. A universal public pharmacare program will ensure that all Canadians have equitable access to life-saving prescription drugs and it will save families and employers billions of dollars.
2. Pensions and Retirement Security
Canadians have been shocked by the high-profile bankruptcies of Sears and other companies that have left retirees stranded, without the pension protection they had been promised after decades of loyal service. The federal government must take steps to ensure that workers who have paid for pensions throughout their working lifetime are not penalized if their employer enters insolvency. The government has many options for ending this injustice. Budget 2019 should take steps to reform federal bankruptcy laws to ensure that plan members and retirees are protected, introduce mandatory pension insurance to look after pensions and benefits in bankruptcy, and implement better monitoring and regulation of companies that sponsor underfunded defined-benefit pension plans (DBP).
3. Affordable Housing
In 2017, the federal budget committed to a new National Housing Strategy and the government has publicly recognized that access to shelter is a human right. Canada’s unions want to see the federal government partner with provincial counterparts to build new affordable housing and invest in the existing affordable housing stock. In particular, budget 2019 should expand investments in First Nations housing on reserve and signal the federal government’s intention to work with provinces, territories and cities in order to crack down on absentee ownership and speculative investment in housing. Canadian workers also want to see the government build and re-invest in temporary and emergency shelter spaces for women and children, and expand social housing, mental health support, and addiction services to help the homeless and those at risk of homelessness.
4. Just Transition
Canada must broaden its economy, invest in new jobs and new industries in all communities, and invest in training to prepare workers for the jobs of the next decade. As Canada transitions away from coal-powered electricity, the federal government needs to ensure affected workers have support to transition to new employment or a dignified retirement, depending on where they are in their working life. Coal communities need targeted investment and transitional supports. The final report of the labour-led Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities was released on March 11. The federal government should act quickly on the recommendations of the Task Force and build on the $35 million announced in budget 2018 to support just transition training and adjustment measures for workers and their communities. Investing in renewable energy, efficient buildings and retrofits, and public transportation will create good jobs while reducing emissions. Ambitious green job-creation targets and support for the low-carbon economy should serve as a framework for sustained, long-term investment in Indigenous communities and low-income urban youth, in order to counteract the forces of inequality, discrimination and despair.
5. Employment Insurance
The government has committed to a broad review of the EI program to address the fact that EI leaves far too many unemployed workers with no safety net. Canada’s unions welcome a full and immediate review of the EI program, and immediate changes to improve the access of unemployed workers to benefits, as well as the adequacy and duration of those benefits. The federal government should also expand the EI sickness benefit and re-examine the financing of the EI program. Finally, the budget should restore fairness and tripartite participation in the EI appeals process to ensure that workers receive the benefits they are entitled to in a timely manner.
6. Investments in Skills Training, Literacy and Life-Long Learning
In order to prepare workers to adapt to technological change and emerging skills needs, budget 2019 should fund access to continuous workplace training and lifelong learning. Given that strong literacy and essential skills are vital for equal participation, the government should ensure core funding for literacy organizations and invest in a new national workplace literacy program delivered in partnership with trade unions. The government should prioritize broad access to training opportunities, for women as well as men, and groups with fewer opportunities including youth, lower-skilled workers, workers with disabilities, newcomers to Canada, and workers of colour. The government should expand vocational education and training opportunities for youth, including in-work apprenticeships and on-the-job experience, while recognizing the vital role of public education and community colleges. The budget should also strengthen Just Transition labour adjustment programming to assist workers, their families and their communities affected by plant closures and climate change policy to access training and employment services, shift to new jobs, and transition to retirement.
7. Fairness for Children and Working Parents
Affordable, accessible and high-quality public child care is essential for women’s full and equal participation in paid work, for dividing unpaid care work more fairly between women and men, and for closing the gender wage gap. Canada needs a plan to achieve affordable child care for all families. Budget 2017 committed $7.5 billion over 11 years to create more child care spaces, but the government can and should expand this investment. Budget 2019 should allocate $1 billion for child care in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, with funds earmarked for Indigenous child care, and increase that amount each year until public spending on child care reaches at least one percent of GDP, the international benchmark used by the OECD, UNICEF and other international bodies.
8. Fairness for Indigenous People
True reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and undoing generations of injustice and discrimination will continue to require expanded multi-year investments in Indigenous communities. The federal government should invest in First Nations-led approaches to resolving the potable water crisis, including the development and implementation of source water protection plans, while ensuring expedited upgrading and maintenance of water systems. Budget 2019 should set aside funding to support equitable and statutory funding to ensure Indigenous child welfare services and expand investments in direct job creation, skills training and apprenticeship opportunities for Indigenous youth, men, and women
9. Fairness for Newcomers to Canada
Immigrants, migrants, and refugees are essential to Canada’s economy, diversity and regional development, yet newcomers continue to face enormous barriers in gaining access to decent jobs, housing, and settlement services. There are many important aspects to doing this. For instance, budget 2019 should include funds to expand settlement services to those who need it, including refugee claimants, migrant workers, citizens and those with precarious immigration status. Canada’s unions want the federal government to invest in the recognition of foreign credentials and expand bridging programs for internationally-trained immigrants and refugees to help newcomers find jobs that match their level of training and experience.
10. Tax Fairness and Reducing Inequality
Expensive tax cuts and tax loopholes have benefited the wealthiest in Canada to the point where the top one percent of income-earners now pay a lower overall effective tax rate than the poorest ten percent. In order to address growing inequality, Canada’s unions want the federal government to eliminate regressive tax loopholes that overwhelmingly benefit high-income earners. Budget 2019 should target new revenues from taxing foreign e-commerce firms appropriately in order to create a level playing field for Canadian providers, and by clamping down on corporate tax dodging through offshore tax structures, including through the application of a one percent withholding tax on Canadian corporate assets held in offshore tax havens.