The portion of the population which is old enough to work is decreasing in Quebec, which creates an additional obstacle limiting our capacity to create jobs and generate wealth. During this time, every year, 17,000 people apply for welfare for the first time, without having major obstacles to their re-entry into the labour force. The majority of these first-time applicants are under the age of 30, and would therefore benefit the most from strict guidelines and individualized support which would allow them to finally achieve their potential.
However, as it stands now, it remains impossible to require that a welfare recipient attend a meeting designed to evaluate his or her situation and to propose that he or she embarks on a path toward reintegration into the workforce. This laissez-faire attitude is irresponsible and must be corrected, particularly at a point in time where Quebec is facing labour force challenges. Voluntary compliance has reached its limit, and is contrary to our social responsibilities with regard to welfare recipients, as well as to global best practices as established most recently by the OECD.
A regional director of Emploi-Québec with whom I recently had a conversation was telling me that one of the Local Employment Centres on her territory had invited more than 60 welfare recipients to a meeting last spring, in order to explain to them the variety of measures that are available to assist them in reintegrating the job market. It must be noted that, in this region as in most regions in Quebec, the unemployment rate is decreasing and there have never been as many jobs available as there are now.
The persons who were invited to the meeting were people who are considered good candidates for employment. In Emploi-Québec jargon, this means that they do not have any major obstacles to overcome to become employed, that many of them already have experience in the workforce, that they have a diploma, a degree or other qualification for employment.
When they received this invitation, at least half these individuals contacted their Local Employment Centre to ask what the meeting was about, and especially to inquire as to whether or not the meeting was compulsory…Since the Loi sur l’aide aux personnes et aux familles does not allow the government to force a welfare recipient to participate in any type of activity, let alone a simple information session on programs that are available to facilitate his or her return to work, most recipients claimed they were unavailable as a pretext for not attending!
On the day in question, there were only five recipients present at the information session, and only two of those people subsequently registered for reintegration measures. Unfortunately, this is a scenario that is playing itself out in every region of Quebec, because in Quebec, only 8% of welfare recipients agree to participate in an activity to which they have been invited by Emploi-Québec. In fact, Emploi-Québec’s website offers a record number of available jobs! Last fall, the Government of Quebec tabled Bill 70, An Act to allow a better match between training and jobs and to facilitate labour market entry, a bill which promotes the establishment of greater links between training and employment, and greater participation in the workforce by those who are able to make a contribution (even a modest one) to society.
One of our strategies for achieving these goals is to require the participation of first-time applicants for welfare who are able to work in initiatives designed to improve their employability, in order to prevent them from getting bogged down in their job search. It is clearly demonstrated that early intervention with first-time applicants and strict guidelines for participation are the most efficient way to assist this clientele.
Amendments to Bill 70
Since we tabled this bill, I have listened to criticisms of it, and have made numerous significant changes to it, in order to respond to legitimate concerns expressed by individuals and organizations who were hostile to the bill’s goal of ending voluntary compliance for first-time welfare applicants. I have insisted that priority be given to those who are returning to school or obtaining a qualification that will facilitate their job search, rather than requiring a rapid return to the workforce, since education remains the best way to fight poverty and social exclusion in a way that is sustainable.
I have also ensured that a pre-employability path be developed, in order to recognize the fact that not all first-time welfare applicants are ready to reintegrate into the workforce, and that progressive steps are often required to get them to that point by taking care to intervene, if necessary, to assist those with psychosocial problems (drug or alcohol addiction, protection of their physical and emotional integrity, and at-risk students). I have also increased the financial incentives that participants in Option Emploi will receive, and the budgets of non-profit organizations which provide services to welfare recipients. There are more than 400 organizations on Quebec’s territory who take welfare recipients under their wing, working closely with Local Employment Centres.
I have also ensured that no recipient will have his or her benefits cut if he or she cannot quickly obtain the necessary resources, and I have clearly stated that no one will be forced to move in order to take a job elsewhere. I have proposed moderate financial penalties for those who choose not to participate in employability initiatives. These penalties are revocable and of short duration, contrary to what is done in other jurisdictions in Canada and elsewhere in the world. Improvements to the employment incentive program are also being introduced in order to ensure that taking a job will always be an option that is financially attractive.
These measures and others like them have been applauded, but we will continue to face the challenge of how to ensure that first-time applicants participate in employability measures if their compliance remains voluntary, as is demonstrated by past experience in Quebec and elsewhere.
Member for Charlesbourg, Minister of Employment and Social Solidarity and Minister responsible for the Capitale-Nationale region