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OBLIGATORY FILLER MATERIAL – ESCAPE FROM STALAG SULTANATE, Part 1
That reminds me of a story. “HELLFIRE AND DALMATIANS!” I shouted to no one in particular. “What’s the problem, dear?” Esme asks in that way she has of telling me to calm down without having to say it directly. “This bloody fucking country. A day late and several dollars short.” I fume. “Can’t get a new liquor license because of the bloody COVID. Can’t go to a hotel bar and have a snort because of the bloody COVID. Can’t even slip across the border to Dubai and soak up some room service and buckets of complimentary cocktails because of the bloody COVID.” Yes, the Sultanate of Oman, in its infinitesimal wisdom, has traditionally followed other GCC countries by at least three months in making any sort of proclamations regarding this latest bugaboo: the hideous, deadly, itchy, loathsome, and possibly serially bent, noxious, pandemical COVID-19; aka, this pandemic’s entry for flu. Their response is one of immense knee-jerk without first having thought of the consequences. “Bloody lockdown, 2100 to 0700. What is this, the whole fucking country’s been bad and now being sent to bed without any supper?” I wondered aloud. “Idiot benchodes.” Even Esme couldn’t come up with a rejoinder to that. “Plus they close all the bars. And all the hotels. And the fucking bottle shops. It’s not enough that these fucking Muppets jack the ‘sin tax’ on booze and cigars by 100%, now they’re not even legally available.” I swore. Of course, once you’ve spent even a small portion of the time that I have in the Middle East, you have your connections. Your system. Your access to the seedy underbelly of any society; the venerable Black Market. Jesus Q. Christ on toast with baked beans, fried tomatoes, black pudding, and mushrooms, I could get most anything in the Middle East, be it legal, shady, or just plain illegal. However, before you all recoil in horror that the venerable Dr. Rocknocker dabbles in the prohibited, just remember: the ends always dojustify the means. “I'm telling you, Esme dear; this Gulf story is getting too complicated. The weasels have started closing in.” I complain to Es as she hands me a fresh drink. “Do you think…?” Esme asks expectantly. Esme is more than ready to go. I’ve used this place as a base of operations for years whilst I wear out the Omani legal system suing those asswipes that think just because they’re local and I’m a kafir, they’re immune to the law. I’ve spent a long, profitable and time-consuming period of the last few years proving them wrong. But, time was marching onwards. I agreed with Esme, we’ve milked this particular cash cow dry. It was time to hitch up our bootstraps, call it a day, and get the hell out of Dodge. But not before I took care of a few loose ends. Now, the country had recently lost its venerable Sultan, who croaked back in January of this year. Sultan Qaboos was a good egg, friend to expat and local alike. Did a shitload of good for this benighted Middle East sandpit. Dragged it kicking and screaming out of the 12th century into, well, not exactly the 21st, but a whole hell of a lot closer. He realized that he needed revolutionary, not evolutionary change in the country. By revolutionary, he needed American, British, Canadian, and the like Western Expats here to do the heavy thinking and lifting and Eastern Expats like Indians, Bangladeshis and Nepalese to do all the scut work. Yeah, I know. That sounds racist as fuck, but sometimes that’s the way the ball bounced. Simple evolution of society where Omanis graduated the local equivalent of grade school, through high school, into University, and finally into Entry level jobs in the oil and gas industry wasn’t going to cut it. Took too long and the country needed a serious cash flow now. So, that’s what he did. And it worked a treat. Then he died. And his chosen took over. Except his chosen was pretty much antithetical to everything the previous and very revered and successful, Sultan wanted. Soon, there are 100% ‘sin taxes’ aimed directly at the western expats. Tourists included. Then there’s quotas and ‘Letters of No Objection’, which are impossible to get so that the Eastern Expats can’t switch jobs. Then, there are Sultanic proclamations of new taxes on tourists, new taxes on fast food, new taxes on this, that and the other. Then there’s, in his own words, “Oman is for Omanis”, blatantly ridiculous and xenophobic Omanization, and the general swipe at all expats. “GET OUT.” This was the clear message of the new sultan. He wanted to take over and possibly nationalize all the oil workings in the country. Ask Venezuela, Iran, and Myanmar how well that worked out for them. Then he wants all expats out on their asses. He wants Omanis to take over all the jobs, even though they’re nowhere near educated nor experienced enough for the positions. Then take up the massive GDP slack in lower oil production and oil prices with tourism. Given everything else, that last line should be enough to get him off the throne. He’s fucking nuts if he thinks people are going to want to cruise or overland anywhere near a place where foreigners are seen only as a cash supply, are despised, and would welcome these all new 100% tax levies. Be that as it may, Esme and I decided that we have had enough of 135O F summer temperatures, virtual house arrest under the guise of a COVID lockdown, and idiots who were the only ones stupid or twisted enough not to vamoose when the great, big bloody letters were clearly written on the wall. But, there was the physical act of getting out of the country. Now, I had plenty of strings which I could pull, but I decided I’d start low and save those until we really needed them. So low, in fact, we went to the US Embassy in Muscat. “How low can you go?” reverberated through my head. What a haven of sad-sacks, flubadubs, and third rate hobbyists. Was either Esme or I surprised that when we finally secured an invitation to the embassy, that required a bit of string-pulling with the ex-Ambassador to Oman, now in Kabul; that besides the peach-fuzz faced Marine guarding the place, we were the only Americans in the joint? “This is American soil!” I laughed, as I pulled out a huge Cuban cigar and was immediately told to extinguish it. “We’re as American as apple pie and napalm! We file our fucking 1040s every April; I pay my fucking long-distance taxes and demand US assistance to vacate this gloomy place of sandy, sweaty, sultry Sturm und Drang!” “Shut up, Rock”, Esme chided me, “They don’t understand English. Much less, the florid English the way you trowel it on.” “Fuckbuckets”, I remonstrated. “Here I had memorized the whole Patrick Henry speech he made to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, at St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. Troglodytes. No admiration for the classics.” “Rock, dear?” Esme noted, “It’s almost 1100 hours. Best to get to our appointment.” True, our appointment was slated for 1100 hours. But around here, anything starting within three hours of the stated time was considered close enough. We dragged ourselves, none too cheerfully, to the waiting room. Once we pried open the door, there was the usual “If you hear a high pitched wail, hit the deck” signs, and other things one could do while kissing one’s ass goodbye if there was a terrorist attack, we had a whole new slew of bullshit with which to deal. “Social distancing. 6 feet. Or if you’re from Baja Canada, 1 cow’s length.” “Must wear a mask. Bandanna, bandoliers, and large-caliber weapons or sombrero optional.” “No sitting. Faux Naugahyde seats are too difficult to sterilize. You must stand at attention, do not talk amongst yourselves, and remain patient until your number is called.” “Well, fuck!”, I snorted quietly, as I raised my first secret flask in rapt attention to our old glory of red, white, and blue. “Good thing they didn’t say nothin’ about getting a load on. If I’m going to be treated like cattle, I’m going to at least have something to chew on in the process.” “Oh, lord”, Esme grumbled, “You didn’t bring that Japanese Rye Whiskey with you, did you?” “ルハイム”, I said, which is Japanese for “L’chaim”! “Oh, hell”, Esme grinned as she borrowed my flask, “This is going to be a long day.” I began to protest but remembered that I was wearing my Agency-issued field vest. I must have had at least 5 or 6 more flasks lurking around in those pockets somewhere. Funny aside: they don’t bother with my going through an X-ray machine nor do they confiscate my phone, radio, knives, nor other field equipment when I go to the US Embassy. It took them almost two solid hours last time, and by the time they got to my Brunton Compass, emergency flasks, a few spare blasting cap boosters, and saw the label sewn into the back of my vest, they decided they’d just send Rack and Ruin some evil Emails and let me pass unmolested. “I’ll drink to that”, I say as I raise a flask as the locals raise an eyebrow. “Courtesy of Atheists International. We’re here for your children…” The collective gasps and growls indicate they weren’t happy with me or my betrothed. “Don’t care, Buckwheat”, I smiled, “Never did, never will. We’re out of here for good. You can curse my name all you want then. But, then again, why you standing in the American Embassy trying to get a visa to visit the land of the great evil empire?” All the locals and most of the Eastern Expats crowded into a corner as far away from us as they physically could. “BOO!” I snickered over a shot of Wild Turkey 101 Rye. “Now serving number 58! Number 58!” came the call over the tannoy. “Look at that”, I remarked to Es as I stashed both our flasks, “It’s only 12:35. Record time.” We both shimmy into the glass-fronted and presumably bullet- but not C-4 resistant- glass. We pick up the telephones there and acknowledge that we are who we said we were. The East Indian fella, one Harsh Talavalakar, behind the multiple layers of glass asked us why we were here. “Didn’t you read the appointment card?” I asked, “We’re here to have Uncle Sam get us passage out of this sordid and sultry place.” “You are American citizens?” he asked, vacantly. “That’s what it says on appointment cards and these here blue passports,” I replied. “Well, how was I to know?” he scoffed, returning to his half-consumed powdered sugar doughnut. “Maybe read the appointment card and see that we are US Citizens here on the behest of Ambassador Bethesda Orun?” I replied. “Like I have time to read everything that comes across my desk”, he scoffed again. I tapped on the glass to make certain I had his full attention. “Look here, Herr Harsh. I’m not sure how you got this job at the American Consulate but want to be very clear with you. My wife and I are residents of this place for the last 20 years. We’re American citizens of very high standing and have more high powered connections than an Arduino in a nuclear power station. We have direct connections with Langley, Virginia and if you want to retain your cushy job, you’ll put down that fucking doughnut and pay very rapt attention to the two Americans standing here who are getting more and more irritated with some Indian benchode that doesn’t think he has to really do his job. You savvy? You diggin’ me, Beaumont” I guess the benchode got his attention. The two scowls he received from Esme and myself sort of cemented the idea that we’re not too pleased and not with to be trifled. “Yes, sir?” he said, “And ma’am”, as Harsh quickly corrected himself as the doughnut disappeared. “We want out. Gone. Vamoose. Outta here. AMF. You got me?” he nods behind the shatterprone glass. “Now I know the borders are sealed and the airport’s closed, but fuck that. We want out and we want gone for good. I can’t make that much simpler or clearer. Get after it, son.” I said, as seriously as I could. “Well, sir”, he began, “ The airport’s closed…” “Are you deaf or born stupid and been losing ground ever since?” I asked, rhetorically. “I know that. We all know that. My HAT knows that. So, what devious little plan does the US Embassy have in store in just such an unsavory situation?” “Well”, he chokes a bit, “There’s this unofficial lottery where America citizens are issued random numbers and if their number comes up, there are seats made available on special clandestine charter flights.” Considering that Es and I are some of the last American citizens left in the country, I thought our chances might be pretty good. “OK”, I said, “Let us have two of your finest numbers.” “Yes, sir”, he said, “That will be US$500 total.” “Excuse me?” I said. “Oh, yes”, he smirked, “US$250 per number. Chances are you’ll never be called, but with these numbers, at least you stand a chance.” “OK”, I said, “Forget the numbers. I want your name and operating number. I’ve got a report to file that’s due in Virginia before breakfast.” “Oh, sir”, he smirked more, “I cannot release that information. Thanking you. Now be having a good day.” And he slammed the supposedly bulletproof shield between himself and Es and me. “Bulletproof? Maybe. Nitro proof? No fucking way.” I groused as I fished out a couple of blasting cap superfast boosters. “Calm down, dear”, Esme smiled to me as we walked out, “When he wasn’t looking, I took his picture, got his operating number, and full name. In fact, I think I got some information on where he lives…” In the cab on the way back to our villa, I reviewed and confirmed Es’s subterfuge. Flasks number 6 and 8 needed serious replenishment by the time we arrived home. “That’s fucking right, Ruin.” I yelled over the phone, “We need extraction. And now. Along with our personal effects and a few hundredweight of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ boxes of stuff we need to be transported.” “Well, Rock”, Agent Ruin replied, “That’s a tall order. Usually, extraction is for one person and the stuff they’re wearing. Tell you what. Let Rack and I work on it for a week or so. We’ll arrange transport of your personal effects, then we’ll see about getting you and Esme to Dubai. At least there, you can order a plane. Hell, knowing you, you’ll get Tony Stark to fly in and provide door to door service. Sit tight. We’ll be back in touch.” “Good!” I say as I slam the phone down. With these newfangled cellphone telephone instruments, they lack the same sort of satisfying “KER FUCKING CLANG” the old landlines used to have. “Es!”, I yelled, “Start packing. We’re due out of here within a week.” That meant we needed to do some packing triage: • Things going home with us. • Things being shipped. • Things being sold. • Things being left behind. • Things no one was about to get their furry little mitts on. “Oh, fuck!”, I startled. I had just remembered the John Wick-ian stash of various explosives, and adjunct materials I had buried in the basement. Obviously, I couldn’t take it home with me, I couldn’t sell it, and I sure as festering frothing fuck wasn’t going to leave it here. I needed to call one of my more shifty and swarthy friends and arrange for passage out to the deep, dark desert. Around the area where the new sultan had opened a couple of brand new landfills. Looks like I was going to expand them a few meters once we disposed of the few hundred kilos of accumulation I attained over the last few years. See, I’m a packrat. I never leave nor toss anything that might be convenient. Might have a benefit. Might prove to be useful sometime down the line. So, I’ve accumulated a bit of kit. Like…well…a few hundred sticks of Du Pont 60% Extra Fast Dynamite. A couple dozen spools of Z-4 Primacord, in various degrees of fullness. A shitload of C-4; enough bricks for a Floydian wall. A couple, well, a dozen, well, two dozen cases of binary liquid explosives. Hey, this stuff is hard to come by… Continuing, several thousand blasting caps and superfast flash blasting cap boosters. Some mercury fulminate. Some nitrogen triiodide. A couple tens of pounds of PETN. An equal amount of RDX. A few Erlenmeyer flasks full of shit even I’m not certain of what it is… Oh. And a few kilos of freshly decanted, raw nitroglycerin; packed in sturdy wooden boxes lined with new fuzzy lamb’s wool. Not that much. Just 10 or 12 kilos. Yeah. I can’t leave that here. Even a small accident with this stuff would lay waste to not only our villa; but my landlord’s villa with whom we share a common wall. Besides, as Omanis go, my landlord was the only dishdasha dressed denizen for which I had any respect or admiration. He was a good guy. I needed to return his villa at least in some semblance of what I received when we first rented from him. So, I had to dispose of many, many billions of kilojoules of potential energy. I needed to do this out in a distant and far away from prying ears and eyes regions and I needed a truck to haul this stuff out to the range. To be continued…
Addressing Canada’s Employment Insurance Gap For Self-Employed Workers
Source: TD Ksenia Bushmeneva, Economist Dated July 15th, 2020
While the pandemic had devastated the overall labor market, workers in more precarious and non-standard work arrangements have been especially hard-hit.
Yet, many of these workers do not have access to employment insurance (EI) or run a higher risk than regular workers of not meeting qualification conditions. Only 64% of unemployed Canadians contributed to EI in 2018, meaning that millions would be left without financial assistance in the absence of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
Extending EI coverage to non-standard workers does have challenges. However, there is a growing understanding among many countries that these workers require social protection. More than two thirds of the OECD countries offer at least partial coverage for the self-employed. Their experience offers valuable lessons if Canada decides to follow suit.
The labor market recovery is likely to be uneven and protracted. This is especially true for self-employed and other non-standard workers, since their hours and incomes are more volatile and less protected. Having a more inclusive system with a broader contribution base, which accommodates non-standard workers but also includes a larger number of regular employees would help strengthen the recovery and build on economic gains achieved so far through the temporary CERB program.
The COVID-19 pandemic delivered a sudden and devastating blow to the Canadian labor market. Between February and April, millions of people lost their jobs as employment plunged by 16%. Unlike in previous recessions, the impact this time around has been disproportionately felt by workers in more precarious employment arrangements: part-time, temporary and self-employed, who are less likely to have access to unemployment insurance (EI). These types of work arrangement are more prevalent in the service sector industries, many of which have been hard-hit during this downturn. As of June, year-over-year (y/y) employment in part-time and temporary positions was down by 17% and 24%, respectively (Chart 1). For multiple job holders, employment fell by nearly 40%. By comparison, the 7% y/y decline in permanent positions seems relatively modest.
As dramatic as these declines are, they may still under-represent the pandemic’s toll on employment and incomes. Notably, overall hours worked fell more than employment during the months of lockdown and social distancing. This is especially true for non-standard workers who were more likely to work fewer hours than regular employees. For example, while self-employed workers saw only a 3% drop in employment since February, 43% of self-employed worked less than half of their usual hours in May (Chart 2). By comparison, among all employees, only 9% worked less than half of their usual hours. Moreover, self-employed people who were away from work were more hard-hit financially as they were far less likely to still be paid. Among incorporated self-employed workers with zero hours, less than 1 in 10 received pay compared to 1 in 4 for regular employees in the same situation.
As a result of the significant drop in hours worked, a far larger portion of the labor force was underutilized than suggested by the unemployment rate alone. While the official unemployment rate was 12.3% in June (equivalent to 2.45 million people), Statistics Canada noted that nearly 27% of the potential labour force was ‘underutilized’. The significant gap between the drop in the hours worked versus the more modest decline in employment helps to explain why 8.3 million of people have applied the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) (at any point during this crisis).
It is clear that self-employed and other non-standard workers were more impacted by the pandemic. Yet these workers usually have the least access to social safety nets, such as EI. Currently, EI unemployment benefits are mostly accessible to employees in the most traditional sense of the word: those that work full-time in a permanent positions for a single employer. By contrast, self-employed workers are not eligible for EIi, and, while those in temporary, contract and part-time positions are eligible, they might not have a chance to accumulate enough insurable hours to qualify because their work arrangements are less stable. Due to lack of EI coverage and significant loss of hours, nearly 40% of self-employed workers applied for CERB benefits, while only 12% and 5% of private and public employees did (Chart 3).
The reasons why some workers, such as those that are self-employed, are excluded are rooted in the design of the EI program. The program is based on insurance principles, with both employers and employees paying into it through mandatory contributions. The corollary is that those workers who have not paid in, as well as those who have left voluntarily without just cause, are disqualified. Contributions are also intended to make the program self-sufficient in the long-run as has been the case in Canada in recent years. In the case of self-employed workers, there’s also an issue of moral hazard when it comes to determining what represents a valid job separation (more on this in the section below: “What Complicates Offering EI Coverage For Non-Standard Workers”). For this and other reasons, many non-standard workers are currently ineligible for unemployment insurance.
These gaps in coverage have been growing as the job market has steadily tilted towards more non-standard work arrangements. In 2018, only 64% of unemployed Canadians had contributed to EI.ii Even among workers who have contributed, only 88% had accumulated enough insurable hours to qualify for benefits, which, depending on the regional level of unemployment, ranges between 420-700 hours in the 52-week period. The combined influence implies a relatively low EI coverage ratio for Canadian workers – out of 1.1 million Canadians who were unemployed in 2018, only 56% were eligible for EI.1 The share of unemployed workers who actually received EI benefits is even lower, averaging slightly above 40%.2 This is considerably below the median coverage among developed counties, which is around 60%.3
Due to data limitations and because non-standard workers include many different types of employment arrangements which may overlap, it is difficult to know with precision the prevalence of non-standard work in Canada. About 15% of Canadian workers are self-employed, while 17% work part-time. In 2016, Statistics Canada estimated that gig workers (self-employed freelancers, on-demand online workers and day labourers) accounted for roughly 8%-10% of Canadian workers. About half of those workers were relying exclusively on their gig income and had no other employment, making them ineligible for EI benefits.4
The low coverage rate and other limitations of the current EI system have been highlighted extensively in other research literature.5 For example, the fact that benefit eligibility and generosity varies geographically across Canada implies that there’s significant variability in coverage rates across provinces. EI coverage ratios are particularly low in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta – all three provinces which also have above-national prevalence of self-employment (see Charts 4).6
In order to mitigate these shortcomings in the near term, the Canadian government rolled out the CERB program. Compared to EI, CERB qualification rules are very straightforward and were a quick means to provide financial assistance to an extremely broad and large number of applicants that included previously uninsured workers. CERB’s eligibility replaced the insurable hours threshold with a low and uniform income threshold, with anyone over the age of 15, having earned more than $5,000 in income in 2019 and who have lost their job or hours due to COVID-19. This had provided a helping hand to millions of non-standard workers in Canada. However, it has come with a steep price tag: in just three months since it was launched the government had already paid out $55 billions in benefits (as of July 5th) – nearly three times last year’s annual spending on EI and $28 billion more than it had predicted at the conception of the program.
CERB coverage was originally offered for 16 weeks, and was recently extended for an additional 8 weeks. However, it will start expiring in September for the earliest recipients, long before the labour market and certain industries are back to health. Unless adjustments are made to the EI program to accommodate non-standard workers, many of them may suddenly find themselves without unemployment assistance.
What Complicates Offering EI Coverage For Non-Standard Workers
Limited social protection for self-employed and other non-standard workers is not an issue unique to Canada. In most developed countries, non-standard workers have lower social protection compared to regular employees, with unemployment benefits being the least accessible benefit (Charts 5-8). Why is that and what makes implementation of unemployment insurance coverage for self-employed workers challenging for policymakers?
First of all, providing unemployment insurance for self-employed workers (and other non-standard workers) raises the issue of moral hazard. Put another way, presence of EI coverage may change behavior of self-employed workers making them less likely to take on work and more likely to remain unemployed. Non-standard workers tend to have more variable income, and they are far more likely to have lower future earnings than regular employees due, for example, to smaller assignments and contracts, or flexible pricing on various labor platforms (e.g. Uber). Lower expected future earnings could prompt them to quit in favor of EI benefits. More volatile earnings also make it more challenging to determine the appropriate income replacement rate. However, one solution to this could be to use income averaged over a period of time.
Secondly, for regular workers, reasons for leaving a job are transparent and can be verified with the employer. This is difficult to achieve in the case of non-standard workers. For example, if they avoid smaller assignments, then they will lose work but this will be impossible for government agencies to determine.
Some countries (e.g. Sweden, Austria, Slovakia, Spain) offer a voluntary option for self-employed workers to enroll into an employment insurance plan. However, a voluntary arrangement raises the issue of adverse selection. Workers with the highest risks or those that are most likely to make a claim have the greatest incentive to join, which limits the risk-sharing aspect of the program.
Adverse selection is something that Canada experienced first hand when it introduced the Special Benefits for Self-employed Workers (SBSE) in 2010 through the EI system, which allowed self employed workers to opt-in to gain access to maternity and parental benefits, sickness benefits and compassionate care and caregiver benefits. A 2016 program review study found that the characteristics, such as gender, age and income, of the self-employed workers who participated in the SBSE program were considerably different from the general sample of self-employed workers. In focus group studies, participants also indicated that the likelihood of making a claim was an important consideration for their decision to register for the benefits.7 Other issues with the voluntary scheme included a relatively low take-up rate, which in turn led to relatively high administration costs and required significant government subsidies to cover benefit payouts. Longer-run, low coverage is problematic for voluntary, contributions-financed, unemployment insurance schemes, as adverse selection could lead to a vicious cycle of rising insurance premiums and falling coverage. Meanwhile, achieving high coverage may require significant public subsidies because individual willingness to voluntarily pay for unemployment protection appears to be low.8 For those reasons, voluntary coverage schemes do not appear to work well in the case of non-standard workers.
Lastly, the current EI system is based on contributions from both employees and employers. In the case of the self-employed, it is not clear who will pick up the tab for the employer portion of the contribution. If the government subsidizes the employer portion, it could create adverse incentives for employers to hire a self-employed worker to reduce non-wage related labor costs. However, a lack of coverage for non-standard workers could also lead to this outcome, contributing to a rise in non-standard forms of employment. For example, in Italy, para-subordinate workers (self-employed but highly depended on one or very few clients) used to pay significantly lower pension contributions and were not eligible for unemployment and sickness benefits, resulting in significantly lower non-wage labor costs and a rising number of para-subordinated workers. In response to this Italy had gradually increased their contribution rates and expanded coverage. Levelling the playing field led to a significant decline in the prevalence of this type of employment. Austria had a similar experience with independent contractors.
Some Solutions Based on The International Experience
Despite the challenges in expanding unemployment insurance to non-standard workers, there is a growing understanding among many countries that the growing share of non-standard workers need social protection. As a result, more than two thirds of the OECD countries now offer at least partial unemployment benefits to self-employed workers. There’s a great variety of schemes, ranging from mandatory to partial and voluntary coverage, and no two are exactly alike. Still, their experience offers valuable lessons for Canada if it wishes to incorporate self-employed (and potentially other non-standard) workers into its EI system.
So what are some of the solutions of dealing with the higher moral hazard issue for non-standard workers? Lower level of EI benefits or a more restrictive access could be imposed in order to incentivize individuals to search for work or to keep their current job, and to offset higher level of moral hazard. In Sweden, for example, the moral hazard issue is mitigated through more restrictive access, allowing self-employed workers to claim benefits only after 5 years have passed since the previous claim. There is also a requirement that the firm has been shut down, which acts as an additional deterrent.
To mitigate adverse selection, upon starting a business, self-employed individuals in Austria have six months to decide whether they would like to participate in the voluntary unemployment insurance scheme, and that decision is binding for 8 years. In Canada, only half of startups survive to their eight-year anniversary, so there is a high likelihood EI could be used at least once by many self-employed business owners during this time period.10
Generally speaking, based on the OECD review,11 there appears to be a consensus that voluntary coverage schemes, particularly the ones with little or no commitment, such as Canada’s EI SBSE for the self-employed, are quite rare and do not work well to accommodate non-standard employment due to prevalent adverse selection, low participation and the significant public subsidies required to operate them.
On the other hand, mandatory EI contributions and coverage, like the one that currently exists for regular employees, would resolve the issue of adverse selection, hold more closely to the principle of risk sharing within their peer groups, and help to lower program costs. However, results from past surveys conducted in Canada found that there was little support among the self-employed for a mandatory contribution scheme.12 Due to the nature of their work, many self-employed workers indicated a preference to minimize their absence from work (to avoid the risk of losing clients etc.) suggesting that, unless their contribution rates are significantly lower, self-employed workers may get less “value-for-money” from EI programs, such as for example maternity/paternity leave, than traditional employees. The less predictable nature of their income means that they are likely more in need of an income protection program rather than employment insurance.
Indeed, based on surveys, their preferred financing option for temporary work/income disruptions was a tax-sheltered savings account.13 This is another viable alternative to contributions-funded EI, however, the downside is that individual contribution rates would need to be significantly higher in order to generate sufficient savings because there will be no splitting of contribution between employers and employees. There is also a risk that individuals, particularly those in part-time or low-income jobs, may not be able to accumulate sufficient savings to weather the unemployment or low-earnings spell.
For other non-standard workers, such as those with flexible hours or doing work for an online platform, one solution would be to introduce a wage premium for employees doing flexible work. This would compensate workers for the added income uncertainty. In Australia, for example, casual workers are entitled to a wage premium or have a minimum hours guarantee.
Lastly, if the goal is to make social protection more universal and harmonized across all forms of employment, a means-tested social protection system financed through general taxation, similar to that of Australia and New Zealand, could be adopted. However, moving to these systems would require a complete overhaul of Canada’s current contribution-based EI.
The labor market recovery is likely to be uneven and protracted. Even those workers that were able to return to work could remain underutilized and continue to face lower earnings due to social distancing restrictions and weaker consumer demand for a considerable period of time. This is especially true for self-employed and other non-standard workers, since their hours and incomes are more volatile and less protected. The rollout of CERB during the pandemic has been very helpful to address gaps in coverage within the current EI system. However, looking ahead, a more sustainable and permanent solution is required for workers outside the EI system. Having a more inclusive system with a broader contribution base, which accommodates non-standard workers but also includes a larger number of regular employees through more inclusive qualification criteria would help strengthen the recovery and maintain economic gains that were so far accomplished through CERB.
The traditional EI system is based on a binary choice of whether or not someone has a job. It is clear that with non-standard forms of employment becoming more prevalent, fewer people fit into that box. These workers need some form of insurance against joblessness as well as income volatility both during the current economic recovery and in the future to address the changing nature of employment relationships. Many OECD countries now offer various options for non-standard workers to participate in unemployment insurance systems, and their experience offers valuable lessons if Canada decides to follow suit.
Since 2010 self-employed workers can voluntarily participate in EI Special Benefit for Self-Employed Workers (SBSE) to gain access to many life event-type benefits accessible to regular employees, such as maternity and paternity leave programs, leave due to sickness or to care for an sick family member. In addition to this, current EI system allows certain exceptions for some non-standard workers. For example some individuals who work independently as barbers, hairdressers, taxi drivers, drivers of other passenger vehicles are eligible to receive benefits through the regular EI program. Fishermen are also included as insured persons under the EI Fishing Regulations. In the case of the self- employed fishermen, EI qualification is tied to income. In order to qualify for up to 26 weeks of benefit, they need to have earned between $2,500 to $4,200 in the last 31 weeks.
The two main reasons for not contributing to the EI program were not having worked in the previous 12 months, and non-insurable employment (which includes self-employment).
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